Written by Diplomatic Correspondent
India and Pakistan appear to have returned from the brink of a full-scale war. The world witnessed first India-Pakistan dogfight in nearly 20 years after Kargil War that put the countries on the brink of war. The release of an Indian pilot captured by the Pakistan army as a result of that dogfight played a significant role to deescalate the situation... ...
Tensions are still running high between the two countries. Shelling on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) that acts as a de facto border in the disputed Kashmir region is still continuing and resulting in the loss of lives.
A suicide car bombing on February 14, 2019 that killed at least 44 Indian paramilitary personnel from the Central Reserve Police Force in Indian-controlled Kashmir escalated the tension as India blamed Pakistan for supporting terrorist activities inside its borders.
The suicide attack took place in the Lethpora area of south Kashmir's Pulwama and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) claimed responsibility, saying it was a suicide attack, according to the Indian media.
A convoy in which the soldiers were travelling was attacked by a suicide bomber, who rammed his explosives-laden vehicle into one of the convoy’s buses.
The attacker was a 19 years old boy identified as Adil Ahmad Dar also known as ‘Waqas Commando’, a resident of Pulwama’s Kakapor area.
Terming the attack as “despicable and dastardly”, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “The sacrifices of our brave security personnel shall not go in vain.”
He accused Pakistan of harboring the group behind the attack and promised a strong response. Pakistan, however, strongly denied its involvement in the attack.
The anger was growing rapidly inside India following the attack. Many hardliners demanded a hard hitting action inside Pakistan. As a result of the bombing a large number of Kashmiri people including students came under attack across India.
On February 26, twelve days after the Pulwama attack India conducted a "non-military preemptive strike" at what it claims to be a terror camp inside Pakistan. Multiple Indian media outlets reported that as many as 12 Mirage fighter jets carried out the air strike at 3:30 am (India time) and inflicted "major damage" on what they called camps of Jaish-e-Mohammed in Balakot town “60 km” from the line of control.
India's foreign secretary Vijay Gokhle said the air strike was in response to "credible intelligence" that the banned group Jaish-e-Mohammed was preparing to target India again.
"Credible intelligence was received that the Jaish-e-Mohammed was attempting other suicide terror attacks in various parts of the country and various jihadis were being trained for this purpose.
"In the face of imminent danger, a preemptive strike became absolutely necessary," Mr Gokhle told journalists in New Delhi.
He said a "large number of terrorists" were killed in the air strike on a Jaish camp in Balakot in Pakistan.
The President of BJP (the ruling party of India) Amit Shah claimed that 250 terrorists had been killed in the attack.
Though the Pakistani military confirmed that the Indian Air Force fighter jets intruded into the Pakistani airspace but denied any damage or casualties.
"Indian aircrafts’ intrusion across LOC in Muzaffarabad Sector within AJ&K was 3-4 miles. Under forced hasty withdrawal aircrafts jettisoned their payload which had free fall in open area. No infrastructure got hit, no casualties," Pakistani DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor tweeted.
Independent world media dismissed the Indian claim saying that no evidence suggested numbers of terrorists were killed and their camp was destroyed. Al Jazeera visited the site of the Indian strikes and found that bombs hit a forest and a field in a remote area in northern Pakistan’s town of Joba, about 100km away from capital, Islamabad.
Some Indian opposition leaders also expressed their doubt about the attack and asked the government to share the proof. India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley denied to share the proof saying, “It is a very irresponsible stand.”
Within 24 hours of the Indian attack, Pakistan retaliated by conducting airstrikes going over the ceasefire line into Indian occupied Kashmir where they claimed to have raided supply depots and BLA (Baluch Liberation Army) terrorist training camps and shot down two Indian jets which were hastily scrambled to intercept and engage the Pakistani aircrafts. While one of them crashed inside India the other crashed after entering Pakistani airspace, capturing one pilot in the morning on February 27, 2019. The counterattack of Pakistan was seen as a bolt out of the blue for India.
Shortly, Pakistan released a footage showing one captured Indian pilot, who identified himself as Wing Commander Abhinandan Vartaman. His uniform was bloody and a rag was tied around his head. He gave his name, service number, rank and religion, but when asked for more, replied: “I’m sorry sir, that’s all I’m supposed to tell you.”
In a press briefing, Pakistani DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor told Pakistan struck six targets on the Indian side of the ceasefire line, ensuring they kept a safe distance away from civilian, administrative or military sites.
“When PAF [Pakistan Air Force] took targets, IAF’s [Indian Air Force] two planes violated the line of control and entered Pakistan,” he said. “PAF was ready, there was an engagement and as a result both Indian planes were shot down. One wreckage fell on our side and another wreckage fell on their side.” General Ghafoor said one Indian pilot was captured and interrogated.
This dog fight between India and Pakistan triggered the tension to the highest level. India demanded immediate release of their pilot. Imran Khan, the Pakistani Prime Minister, used a televised address to call for dialogue to prevent more reprisals, making reference to both countries’ nuclear arsenals.
“With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we afford miscalculation?”, Khan said. “Shouldn’t we think that, if this escalates, what will it lead to?”
The flare up between two nuclear neighbors unnerved the global powers. The main international actors including UN, US, EU, Russia and China, urged both countries to have restraint and to avoid any further military escalation. They also stepped in behind the seen to de-escalate the tension.
On February 28, 2019 Pakistan said it would release the pilot who was captured after downing the Indian plane, in what it said was a gesture to ease growing tensions between the two nuclear rivals.
Pakistan's Prime Minister, Imran Khan, announced that he would release the pilot, identified as Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, on March 1, 2019 as a "peace gesture" to India. Imran Khan called for sensible action between the two countries.
He said that India and Pakistan should sit down and talk. He urged "better sense to prevail."
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who became the face and symbol of the biggest clash between India and Pakistan in many years, walked across the border just before 9:00 pm (1600 GMT) on March 1, 2019 in a high-profile handover shown on live television.
The flare up between arch-enemies India and Pakistan appeared to be easing after Islamabad handed back the captured Indian pilot, amid efforts by global powers to prevent a war between the nuclear-armed neighbors.