Indian Air Force on Tuesday decimated Jaish-e-Mohammed's biggest training camp in Pakistan, killing up to 350 terrorists and trainers who were moved there for their protection after the Pulwama attack.
The pre-dawn operation described as "non-military" and "preemptive" struck a five-star resort style camp on a hilltop forest that provided a dozen Mirage 2000 fighter jets of the Indian Air Force(IAF) with a "sitting duck target" and caught the terrorists in their sleep, sources said.
The strike is the first by the IAF inside Pakistan after the 1971 war.
What did Indian government say?
Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale told the media that the "intelligence-led operation" on the Pakistan-based terror group's biggest training camp in Balakot became "absolutely necessary" as it was planning more suicide attacks in India, after the February 14 attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama in which 40 soldiers were killed. The JeM claimed responsibility for the Pulwama strike.
Gokhale said the camp was located in Balakot but did not elaborate further. Sources said the reference was to the town in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, about 80 km from the Line of Control(LoC) and near Abbotabad where Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed in hiding in 2011 by covert US forces.
Gokhale also did not give details of how the attacks were carried out.
Without making a direct reference to the attack, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a public rally in Rajasthan that the country was in safe hands.
“I want to assure the people that the country is in safe hands. There is nothing above the nation,” Modi said at a rally in Churu, Rajasthan, in his first remarks after the strike. He, however, did not or give any details of the operation described by some as an aerial surgical strike.
What do we know about the surgical strike?
India received intelligence that the JeM had shifted many in-training terrorists and hardcore operatives, along with their trainers, to the camp, which has facilities for 500 to 700 people and even a swimming pool, sources said.
In a synchronised operation, fighter and other aircraft took off from several air bases in Western and Central commands at about the same time, leaving Pakistani defence officials confused about where they were heading, they said.
A small group of aircraft broke away from the swarm and headed to Balakot where "the sleeping terrorists were sitting ducks for the Indian bombing", said one source.
The official sources said the synchronised operation involved 12 Mirage 2000 aircraft supported by a fleet of Sukhoi 30 jets, a mid-air refueller and two Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS).
The sources said the IAF jets used a number of laser-guided bombs, each weighing over 1,000 kg, to destroy the terror camp, about 20 km from Balakot town.
The operation began around 3:45 AM and concluded by 4:05 AM while the actual strike lasted for less than two minutes, the sources said. The aircraft took off from a number of bases, they said.
Prime Minister Modi was up all night as he monitored the IAF operation, relaxing only after all the pilots returned safely home, government sources said. He congratulated all those involved in the operation at around 4.30 am.
How did Pakistan react?
The attack stunned Pakistan which vowed to respond "at the time and place of its choosing" and raise the matter at the United Nations and other international forums.
At a hurriedly called special meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC)- the country's top security body - hours after India's air strikes, Prime Minister Imran Khan asked the armed forces and the people of his country to remain prepared for "all eventualities."
"The forum (NSC) strongly rejected Indian claim of targeting an alleged terrorist camp near Balakot and the claim of heavy casualties....,"said a statement issued after the NSC meeting in Islamabad.
The country's top civil and military brass "concluded that India has committed uncalled for aggression to which Pakistan shall respond at the time and place of its choosing," it added.
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Pakistan Army confirmed that Indian fighter jets dropped "four bombs" during the operation but downplayed its significance, saying the Indian attack was repulsed and while going back the aircraft "jettisoned their payload."
Army spokesman Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor said Pakistan will "surprise" India with its response that will be in all domains including "diplomatic, political and military."
"Prime Minister Imran Khan told the army and the people that get ready for any eventuality. Now it is time for India to wait for our response. We have decided. Wait for it," Ghafoor said.
Why was IAF strike pre-emptive and urgent?
"Credible intelligence was received that JeM was attempting another suicide terror attack in various parts of the country, and the fidayeen jihadis were being trained for this purpose," Gokhale told the media.
In the face of imminent danger, a preemptive strike became "absolutely necessary", the foreign secretary said.
"In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated," he said, stressing that care was taken to avoid civilian casualties.
At least 325 terrorists and 25 to 27 trainers were at the camp, sources told PTI.
The facility at Balakot, located in a thick forest on a hilltop far from civilian presence, was headed by Maulana Yousuf Azhar, alias Ustad Ghouri, the brother-in-law of JeM chief Masood Azhar, he said, reading out from a statement.
The statement did not say if Yousuf Azhar was among those killed.
How did India react to IAF strike?
Leaders cutting across the political divide came together to hail the IAF strikes at an all party meeting.
While opposition leaders, including Congress president Rahul Gandhi, kept their reactions to praising the IAF, BJP leaders and their allies used what is being seen as Indian retaliation following the Pulwama attack to laud Modi's decisive leadership and political will which, they asserted, have driven the response from the armed forces.
Family members of the CRPF personnel, who lost their lives in the Pulwama attack, said they have found some solace in the airstrikes but pressed for efforts to wipe out the menace of terrorism "once and for all".
“We were expecting a strong response to Pakistan from India and this has been done now. Our loss is irreparable but we are satisfied with what has been done,” said Mahesh Gurjar, a cousin of slain CRPF soldier Narayan Lal Gurjar.
Jubilant people came out on streets and marches were held as the news of the IAF's strike was hailed across the country.
The sentiment also echoed in state assemblies with the legislatures in Haryana, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh passing resolutions praising the IAF action.
According to sources, terrorists in the Balakot camp were imparted the advanced 'Daura-e-Khaas' training in weapons, explosives and field tactics, attack on convoys of security forces, planting and making of IEDs, suicide bombing, rigging vehicles for suicide attacks and survival tactics in high altitudes and extreme-stress situations.
India, Gokhale said, expects Pakistan to dismantle all terror camps, including those of the JeM.
(With inputs from PTI)
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