The government of India said on Wednesday that an Indian air force pilot was in Pakistani custody and a Pakistani fighter jet was shot down, even as fears of war darkened the India-Pakistan relations with Islamabad launching retaliatory strikes and claiming it has arrested an Indian pilot in its territory.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan tried to defuse the tension by saying war is futile and can lead to unknown consequences while making an oblique reference to the nuclear weapons that both countries possess.
The Pakistan army retracted its earlier statement that two Indian Air Force pilots were arrested and in the evening said it had “only one” pilot in its custody.
“There is only one pilot under Pakistan army’s custody. Wing Comd Abhi Nandan is being treated as per norms of military ethics,” Pakistani military spokesperson major general Asif Ghafoor said in the evening.
IAF sources identified him as wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman.
A day after India bombed Jaish-e-Mohammed’s biggest training camp in Pakistan, it was a morning of developments moving with dizzying rapidity.
Islamabad claimed it hit back at India by bringing down two Indian military aircraft, one of which crashed in Pakistan-administered Kashmir while the other fell in Jammu and Kashmir. Officials here said a Pakistani Air Force F-16 fighter jet was shot down by Indian air defence forces in Jammu region’s Rajouri sector.
During the encounter, a MiG 21 was lost and the pilot was missing.
As tension mounted, the entire airspace north of New Delhi was briefly “vacated”. Nine airports in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab were closed for civilian traffic for some part of the morning but opened later in the day.
Jammu and Kashmir was the centre of much of the action on a day of escalating tensions between the two neighbours.
There was also nightlong heavy firing and shelling on forward and civilian areas from across the LoC in Rajouri and Poonch with the army and the Border Security Force being put on the highest degree of alertness.
All residents of the border areas were asked to remain inside their homes and not venture outside.
While the government and the defence establishment took stock of the situation, building up since the February 14 attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama in which 40 personnel were killed, attention swivelled on the IAF pilot in enemy territory.
In a terse press statement, external affairs ministry Spokesperson Raveesh Kumar, accompanied by air vice marshal R G K Kapoor, said details are being ascertained about Pakistan’s claim of having captured one Indian pilot.
It was later confirmed that he was in Pakistani custody.
Officials said Pakistani fighter jets violated Indian air space in Jammu region’s Poonch and Rajouri sectors but were pushed back by Indian aircraft. The jets dropped bombs while returning but there were no immediate reports of casualties or damage, they said.
“Pakistan has responded this morning by using its air force to target military installations on the Indian side. Due to our high state of readiness and alertness, Pakistan’s attempts were foiled successfully,” Kumar said.
He said the Pakistan air force activity was detected and the Indian air force responded instantly.
“In that aerial engagement, one Pakistan air force fighter aircraft was shot down by a MiG 21 Bison of the Indian air force. The Pakistani aircraft was seen by ground forces falling from the sky on the Pakistan side. In this engagement, we have unfortunately lost one MiG 21. The pilot is missing in action. Pakistan has claimed that he is in their custody. We are ascertaining the facts,” he said.
In Islamabad, the Pakistan army released a 46-second video showing a blindfolded man claiming he is Abhinandan.
“I am an IAF officer. My service No is 27981,” the man is seen as saying in the video.
The veracity of the video could not be ascertained.
Till late afternoon, India’s political leaders, both in government and in the opposition, were mostly quiet.
In a live television broadcast, Pakistan’s leader Imran Khan also reiterated the military’s claim that two Indian MIGs were shot down, as he offered to defuse tensions and resolve the issues through talks.
He said the Pakistani incursion into the Indian air space was “only intended to convey that if you can come into our country, we can do the same.”
Two Indian MiGs were shot down in the ensuing action, Khan said, one day after Indian government sources said up to 350 JeM militants were killed in Tuesday’s attack. There was no official confirmation of the claim.
Meanwhile, Union minister Arun Jaitley Wednesday suggested that India is capable of carrying out an operation similar to the 2011 US action in Pakistan to eliminate Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
His remarks at an event related to the campaign to clean river Ganga came a day after the Indian air force pounded the main camp of Jaish-e-Mohammed outfit in Balakot across the Line of Control.
Referring to the US operation in Abbotabad, Jaitley said, “It is said that a week is too long a time in politics. In our country the way people get enthusiastic, if you look at the last 24 hours, one week would appear to be a day. The kind of things we see…I remember when the US Navy SEAL had taken Osama bin Laden from Abottabad, can’t we do the same?”
“We could earlier only imagine, desire and get frustrated and disappointed (for failing to conduct such operations). But today, it is possible,” he said at the event dedicated to generate funds to clean river Ganga.
The event was organised by the Ministry of Water Resources and Ganga Rejuvenation at DRDO. Jaitley contributed Rs one lakh in his personal capacity for the programme to clean the river.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was Wednesday briefed about the latest security situation following alleged violation of Indian airspace by Pakistani fighter jets in Jammu and Kashmir, sources said.
Top security and intelligence officials were in a huddle earlier in the day at the prime minister’s office in the wake of fresh developments that followed India’s airstrike at a Jaish-e-Mohammed training camp across the LoC on Tuesday.
National security advisor Ajit Doval, senior officials of the Indian Navy, Army and the Air Force and other security officials had met to discuss the current security situation, they said.
Meanwhile, India on Wednesday demanded immediate and safe return of its IAF pilot Abhinandan, captured by Pakistan after an aerial confrontation, and strongly objected to the neighbouring country’s “vulgar display” of an injured defence personnel in violation of international norms.
Summoning Pakistan’s acting high commissioner Syed Haider Shah to lodge a strong protest at “the unprovoked act of aggression” by Pakistan including targeting of military posts, the external affairs ministry said the envoy was clearly told that India reserves the right to take “firm and decisive action to protect its national security”.
India also made it clear to Pakistan that no harm should be caused to the Indian defence personnel, the EAM said.
In its sharp-worded statement, the MEA said India has strongly objected to Pakistan’s “vulgar display” of an injured personnel of the Indian Air Force in violation of all norms of International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Convention.
“It was made clear that Pakistan would be well advised to ensure that no harm comes to the Indian defence personnel in its custody. India also expects his immediate and safe return,” the MEA said.
The MEA lodged a strong protest at the “unprovoked act of aggression by Pakistan against India, including by violation of the Indian air space and targeting of Indian military posts”.
“It is unfortunate that instead of fulfilling its international obligation and bilateral commitment to take credible action against terrorist entities and individuals operating from its soil, Pakistan has acted with aggression against India,” the MEA added.
“It was clearly conveyed that India reserves the right to take firm and decisive action to protect its national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity against any act of aggression or cross-border terrorism,” said the MEA.
It said regret was expressed at continuing denial by Pakistan’s political and military leadership “at the presence of terrorist infrastructure in territories under its control”.
“A dossier was handed over to Pakistan side with specific details of JeM complicity in Pulwama attack and the presence of JeM camps and its leadership in Pakistan,” the MEA said.
“It was conveyed that India expects Pakistan to take immediate and verifiable action against terrorism emanating from territories under its control,” it said.