New Delhi/Islamabad: India on Tuesday said Indian Air Force's (IAF) fighter jets destroyed a major terrorist camp in Pakistan in the worst escalation between the nuclear-armed rivals since 2001, in an incident that Islamabad has described as a "grave aggression".
More than 300 people were killed in the IAF air strikes at the camp belonging to terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed that has trained suicide bombers, according to an Indian official speaking on condition of anonymity.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has directed the armed forces and citizens to "remain prepared for all eventualities".
A statement released from his office today notes Pakistan would respond "at the time and place of its choosing," and rejects India’s claim that it had hit a terror camp or inflicted heavy casualties. "Once again the Indian government has resorted to a self serving, reckless and fictitious claim," the statement reads.
India's foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale said India carried out the IAF air strikes in Pakistan following the Pulwama terror attack in Jammu and Kashmir that killed 40 members of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).
The Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility of that attack and is planning several more, according to Indian intelligence.
The JeM is a United Nations designated terrorist group.
"In the face of imminent danger, a preemptive strike became absolutely necessary," Gokhale said in New Delhi. "A very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated."
India’s benchmark stock index S&P BSE Sensex fell 0.7% at close in Mumbai, recovering from a 1.4% drop. Across the border, Pakistan’s main measure plunged 1.9%, the most since 6 December.
'The last time the Indian Air Force crossed the line of control intentionally and publicly to conduct air strikes was 1971, Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT said via email, referring to the last India-Pakistan war.
Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said at a televised news conference in Islamabad that India violated the Line of Control. "India has committed aggression against Pakistan today—I will call it a grave aggression," Qureshi said.
Tuesday's IAF air strikes the worst escalation since 2001, when Pakistan and India moved ballistic missiles and troops to their border following an attack on parliament in New Delhi that was also blamed on the JeM.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since partition and independence in 1947.
"This is the first time that India has crossed the Line of Control and from the looks of it, the international border," said G. Parthasarathy, the former Indian high commissioner in Pakistan. "In 2001, we had deployed the army on our borders but there was no military action."
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who faces a general election in the coming months, is under enormous pressure after blaming Pakistan for the Pulwama attack, and markets reacted after Modi pledged a "befitting reply".
Islamabad has denied any role in the Pulwama attack. Khan vowed to retaliate against India in a televised speech on 19 February if New Delhi launched any sort of military response. Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, in the past few days visited troops along the Line of Control to see their preparedness, according to the military media wing Inter-Services Public Relations.
"My gut tells me there will be some form of escalation," Kamran Bokhari, director of Strategy and Programs at Center for Global Policy with the University of Ottawa said by phone. "There is no way Pakistan will not combat. Pakistan will have to strike back. I am not saying this will lead to an all out war but I don’t see that it’s over."
On 19 February, the Indian Army said it had killed a JeM leader in Jammu and Kashmir who was a Pakistani national with links to that country’s Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, the main spy agency for the government in Islamabad. Modi had previously said the country’s defense forces have been given the freedom to respond.
Both India and the US see Pakistan as providing safe haven for terrorist groups and point to the fact that the leadership of groups such as JeM and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the 26/11 Mumbai Attacks in 2008, still live freely in Pakistan.
Bloomberg's N.C. Bipindra, Anirban Nag, Archana Chaudhary, Shruti Srivastava, Faseeh Mangi and Hannah Dormido contributed to this story.