Escalating the situation, India and Pakistan exchanged fire across the Line of Control on 26 and 27 February. Ten Indian soldiers were injured while four Pakistani civilians were killed in the shelling. On the latter day, Pakistan conducted airstrikes in Indian-administered Kashmir which caused no casualties or damage.
Also on 27 February, Pakistan claimed that it had captured two pilots after shooting down two Indian jets over Pakistani airspace. India claimed that only one MiG-21 had been lost and demanded the release of the pilot. India also claimed to have shot down a Pakistani F-16, which Pakistan denied. Pakistan later clarified that only one Indian pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, was captured, and he was subsequently released on 1 March.
India and Pakistan have long been at odds with each other, having engaged in several wars, conflicts, and military standoffs. The roots of the continued tension are complex, but have centered mainly around the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. After the 1947 Partition of India, the newly-formed independent states of Pakistan and India squabbled over it, which led to the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947–1948 and a subsequent sharing of the state. The settlement was non-agreeable to both the parties and since then, this had become an ongoing intractable issue leading to a war in 1965. The nations also partook in another war in 1971 which led to the formation of Bangladesh. Both countries developed nuclear weapons in the 1990s and this had a sobering effect on the next major conflict – the 1999 Kargil War.
The standoff occurred ahead of the 2019 Indian general election. After the Pulwama attack, Pakistan's PM attributed Indian government's desire to retaliate against Pakistan to the upcoming election. The Indian government rejected the allegation. Many analysts have stated that a military response to Pakistan would improve the electoral prospects of India's ruling party.
On 26 February 2019, the Indian Air Force conducted airstrikes at Balakot in Pakistan. The strikes were subsequently claimed to be "non-military" and "preemptive" in nature; targeting a Jaish-e-Mohammed facility within Pakistan. The Indian government stated that the airstrike was in retaliation to the Pulwama attack and that "a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis" were eliminated who were preparing for launching another suicide attack targeting Indian assets.
Pakistani officials acknowledged the intrusion of Indian aircraft into the country's airspace but rejected the claims about the results. They asserted that the Indian jets were intercepted and that the payloads were dropped in unpopulated areas and resulted in no casualties or infrastructural damage.Pervez Khattak, the Pakistani Defence Minister, stated that the Pakistani Air Force did not retaliate at that time because "they could not gauge the extent of the damage".
Business Today India stated that the area around Balakot had been cordoned off by the Pakistan Army and evidences such as the dead bodies were being cleared from the area.Praveen Swami writing for Firstpost claimed that Indian intelligence estimated a figure of about 20 casualties and that there were five confirmed kills per burial records. He also noted a JeM rally in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa on 28 February, wherein Masood Azhar's brother, Abdul Rauf Rasheed Alvi mentioned India's attack of their headquarters and vowed revenge. In another piece he stated that RAW analysts estimated 90 casualties including three Pakistani Army trainers, based on intercepted communications. Swami also noted a lack of witness testimony to independently assess the validity of above claims.
Villagers from the area claimed that four bombs struck a nearby forest and a field resulting in damage to a building and injuring a local man around 3:00 AM. A team from Al Jazeera visited the site two days after the strikes and noted "splintered pine trees and rocks" which were strewn across the four blast craters. Local hospital officials and residents asserted that they did not come across any casualty or wounded people. The reporters located the facility, a school run by Jaish-e-Mohammed, at around a kilometre to the east of one of the bomb craters, atop a steep ridge, but were unable to access it. Reporters from Reuters were denied access to the madrassa by the military but they noted the structure and its vicinity to be intact from the rear.
Some diplomats and analysts have raised doubts about the efficacy of the strike, claiming that the terrorist groups along the border would have vacated the area, after the Indian Prime Minister vowed to retaliate against the Pulwama attack. The local people varied as to the purpose of the facility. Whilst some claimed its being an active Jaish training camp, others asserted it to have been a mere school for the local kids and that such militant camps had used to exist far earlier. Satellite-data analysis by Nathan Ruser, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute noted the absence of any apparent evidence to verify Indian claims. Michael Sheldon, a digital forensics analyst at the Atlantic Council, did an independent investigation on the issue, in which he asserted that no damage was caused to any infrastructure around the target site. He concluded that "something appears to have gone wrong in the targeting process", which was mysterious in light of the autonomous nature of the missiles supposedly used.
In contrast, Indian officials said that synthetic aperture radar showed that four buildings had been destroyed; however, they did not release those images. Vice-Marshal RGK Kapoor of the Indian Air Force said on 28 February 2019 that though it was "premature" to provide details about the casualties, they had "fairly credible evidence" of the damage inflicted on the camp by the air strikes.
Heavy skirmishes between Pakistani and Indian forces occurred along the Line of Control on 26 February, with small arms and mortar fire being exchanged. Pakistani officials reported that at least four civilians were killed, and eleven were wounded. A 55-year-old woman and her two children were killed in the Nakyal sector. In the Khuiratta sector, a 40-year-old woman was killed.
Throughout 27 February, heavy exchanges of fire between Indian and Pakistani forces continued along the Line of Control. Ten Indian soldiers were injured along with two residential houses being destroyed in the skirmishes. The Pakistani Army stated that on March 1, two of its soldiers were killed by firing from the Indian Army at the Line of Control.Shelling across the Line of Control killed a Kashmiri woman and her two sons after a shell landed on their home, with another civilian being critically wounded. On 6 and 7 March, Pakistani and Indian forces exchanged heavy artillery fire along the line of control, with Pakistani forces using 130 mm and 105 mm artillery and 120 mm mortars. In response to the Pakistani artillery fire, the Indian army began utilizing 155mm FH77B Bofors cannons against Pakistani positions.
Retaliatory airstrikes, capture and release of pilot
On 27 February, Pakistani military officials announced that Pakistan had carried out an airstrike against multiple targets in Jammu and Kashmir. A military spokesman claimed that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was able to lock onto Indian military installations, but opted to drop weapons into open areas instead, "to avoid human loss and collateral damage." Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan said that the airstrikes only aimed to "send a message" and appealed for negotiations to avoid a full-blown war. The spokesman further claimed that the Pakistan Air Force had shot down two Indian aircraft after they encroached on Pakistan's airspace, one of which fell in Pakistan administered Kashmir while the other fell in Indian administered Kashmir. It was also claimed that Pakistan Army had captured two Indian pilots but a subsequent statement revised the count to one–Abhinandan Varthaman, a Wing Commander.
India rejected this version of events and asserted to have "successfully foiled" Pakistan's attempt to "target military installations". The Indian military claimed that three Pakistan Air Force jets had crossed the Line of Control (LoC) from Nowshera, Jammu and Kashmir and had dropped bombs over Nadian, Laam Jhangar, Kerri in Rajouri District and Hamirpur area of Bhimber Galli in Poonch, before being pushed back by six Indian airforce jets. There were no damage or casualties. Raveesh Kumar from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs also stated that a Pakistani aircraft of the sortie was shot down by the Indian Air Force in the process. India initially contradicted Pakistan's claim of capturing a pilot but subsequently the Indian Ministry of External Affairs confirmed that an Indian pilot was missing in action after a MiG-21 Bison fighter plane was lost while engaging with Pakistani jets.
ANI also reported that an F-16 was shot down in the process. On 28 February, a picture of aircraft wreckage in Pakistan administered Kashmir was claimed by IAF sources as the wreckage of the PAF F-16 shot down by the IAF MiG-21. This was rebutted by Bellingcat, an open source investigative journalism network, which confirmed it as the wreckage of a MiG-21. The Indian Air Force later presented wreckage of an AIM-120, an air-to-air missile, as evidence that Pakistani F-16 were used. The F-16 is the only aircraft in the Pakistan military that uses AIM-120s. India claims that the use of F-16 by Pakistan against India, violates the US arms sales agreement, which restricts the usage of the jets by Pakistan. India also asked US to look into the claimed usage for violations.
The claims of using F-16 in the attack were rejected by Pakistan's military, who claimed to have used Chinese-designed JF-17s only, whilst asserting that no Pakistan Air Force jet was damaged in the process. The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad has since been looking into a potential violation of end-user-agreement that governed the sale of F16s.
The retaliatory air strikes coupled with the capture of the Indian pilot led to a heightened state of military alert. Tanks were deployed to the border in the Pakistani side whilst several Kashmiri residents reportedly fled their homes and painted their homes with red-cross signs to avert air-strikes.
Pakistan released the captured pilot on 1 March, describing the move as a gesture of peace. The Indian Air Force though asserted the pilot's release as an obligation under the Geneva Conventions. The Indian media also criticized Pakistan's release of his photographs and interrogation videos to be against the protocols of the convention. A video published by the state just prior to his release that showed him praising Pakistani Army and condemning Indian media was criticized for being heavily ed.
ANI and the Indian media have claimed that the Indian air force has shot down a number of Pakistani drones. The claims include that on 27 February, a Pakistani drone was shot and brought down near the border at Kutch in Gujarat On 4 March, an Indian Su-30MKI fighter jet shot down a Pakistani UAV with an air to air missile in Bikaner sector of Rajasthan. On 10 March, Indian army's air defence wing shot and brought down another Pakistani UAV in the Ganganagar sector in Rajasthan. On the same day another drone was fired upon and forced to return back to Pakistani airspace.
On 27 February, Pakistan cancelled all commercial flights and closed its airspace until the midnight of 28 February. A NOTAM was issued by the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority to close the airspace. Airlines were forced to reroute or cancel their flights with routes planned over Pakistan, leaving passengers stranded. On 01 March, at 11:40 AM (UTC), the NOTAM closing the airspace was extended until 8:00 AM (UTC) on 04 March with 23 exceptions listed. Pakistan's airspace was closed for flights crossing the country's airspace except for arriving and departing flights at major airports around Pakistan as per NOTAM issued by the CAA. The airspace closure was again extended till 11 March.
Suspension of Samjhauta Express
On 28 February, Samjhauta Express, a train that runs twice weekly between India and Pakistan, was suspended by the government of Pakistan. It was scheduled to depart from Lahore with 16 passengers, who were stranded there. On 4 March, Pakistan, and consequently India, resumed the operations of Samjhauta Express.
Pakistan arrests suspected militants
On 5 March, Pakistan arrested 44 members of various groups, including the Jaish-e-Muhammad. Some of those arrested had been named by India in a dossier it gave to Pakistan in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack. Pakistan said those arrested will be held for at least 14 days, and if India provided further evidence they would be prosecuted. Among those arrested were relatives of JeM leader Masood Azhar, including his son Hamad Azhar and his brother Abdul Rauf.
A number of nations, including Australia, Canada, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, expressed their concern, with some calling for restraint. Iran and Turkey have each offered to mediate the crisis.