The heightened tensions stemmed from a suicide car bombing carried out on 14 February 2019 in which 40 Indian security personnel were killed. A Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, claimed responsibility for the attack. India blamed Pakistan for the bombing and promised a robust response. India has regularly accused Pakistan of utilising militants to destabilise Indian-administered Kashmir. Pakistan, however, denied any involvement in the bombing.
Some twelve days later, India and Pakistan conducted airstrikes against targets in each other's territory.
The first airstrike was conducted by India in the early morning hours of February 26 in the vicinity of the town of Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan, several miles inside the province's boundary with Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Pakistan's military, the first to announce the airstrike on February 26 morning, described the Indian planes as dropping their payload in an uninhabited wooded hilltop area near Balakot. India, confirming the airstrike later the same day, characterised it to be a preemptive strike directed against a terrorist training camp, and causing the deaths of a "large number" of terrorists.
The second airstrike, a retaliatory one, was conducted during daytime on February 27 by Pakistan in a region of Indian-administered Kashmir. A dogfight during this airstrike caused an Indian MiG-21 Bison warplane to be shot down and its pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, to be taken prisoner by the Pakistan military before being returned on March 1.
On April 10, 2019, some international journalists, who were taken to the Jaba hilltop in a tightly controlled trip arranged by Pakistani government, found the largest building of the site to show no evidence of damage or recent rebuilding.
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, one of whom was said to be injured and taken to the Combined Military Hospital. But a subsequent statement revised the count down 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". An Indian Air Force (IAF) official statement hours after the airstrike stated that bombs had been dropped on Indian army formation compounds, but there was no damage to military installations. The Indian military later 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.
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.
The Pakistani Airspace is closed since 27 February. 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 1 March, at 11:40 AM (UTC), the NOTAM closing the airspace was extended until 8:00 AM (UTC) on 4 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 repeatedly extended, and has not been lifted as of 3 April.
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.
^Michael Safi; Azhar Farooq (15 February 2019), "Dozens of Indian paramilitaries killed in Kashmir car bombing", The Guardian, archived from the original on 4 April 2019, retrieved 4 April 2019 Quote: "The Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for the bombing. It said it was carried out by Adil Ahmad Dar, a locally recruited fighter from south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. The group released a video showing Dar delivering his will and a photograph of him surrounded by guns and grenades."
Maria Abi-Habib; Sameer Yasir; Hari Kumar (15 February 2019), India Blames Pakistan for Attack in Kashmir, Promising a Response, archived from the original on 23 February 2019, retrieved 4 April 2019 Quote: "Pakistan has denied involvement in the attack, in which at least 40 Indian soldiers were killed Thursday when a driver slammed an explosives-packed vehicle into a paramilitary convoy."
Maria Abi-Habib; Austin Ramzy (25 February 2019), Indian Jets Strike in Pakistan in Revenge for Kashmir Attack, archived from the original on 27 February 2019, retrieved 27 February 2019 Quote: "A spokesman for Pakistan’s armed forces, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, on Tuesday posted on Twitter four images of a forested area pockmarked with small craters and debris, which he said was the site of Indian airstrikes."
Martin Howell; Gerry Doyle; Simon Scarr (5, 2019), Satellite images show buildings still standing at Indian bombing site, Reuters, archived from the original on 16 March 2019, retrieved 20 April 2019Check date values in: |date= (help) Quote: "The images produced by Planet Labs Inc, a San Francisco-based private satellite operator, show at least six buildings on the madrasa site on March 4, six days after the airstrike.
... There are no discernible holes in the roofs of buildings, no signs of scorching, blown-out walls, displaced trees around the madrasa or other signs of an aerial attack."
^European Space Imaging (8 March 2019), PAKISTAN: Satellite Imagery confirms India missed target in Pakistan airstrike, archived from the original on 27 March 2019, retrieved 20 April 2019 Quote: " ... said Managing Director Adrian Zevenbergen. '... The image captured with Worldiew-2 of the buildings in question shows no evidence of a bombing having occurred. There are no signs of scorching, no large distinguishable holes in the roofs of buildings and no signs of stress to the surrounding vegetation.' "
^Marcus Hellyer; Nathan Ruser; Aakriti Bachhawat (27 March 2019), "India's strike on Balakot: a very precise miss?", The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, archived from the original on 12 April 2019, retrieved 20 April 2019 Quote: "But India’s recent air strike on a purported Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist camp in Balakot in Pakistan on 26 February suggests that precision strike is still an art and science that requires both practice and enabling systems to achieve the intended effect. Simply buying precision munitions off the shelf is not enough."
^Martin Howell; Salahuddin; Reuters (11 April 2019), "Inside the Pakistani Madrasa Where India Said It Killed Hundreds of 'Terrorists", The New York Times, archived from the original on 19 April 2019, retrieved 20 April 2019 Quote: "Those visiting the site on Wednesday didn't see any signs that there had been significant building work to either clear structures or erect new ones. And the vegetation didn't appear to have suffered the stress that might be expected from a missile attack."
^Agence France Presse (11 April 2019), "Pakistan takes media, diplomats on visit to Indian strike site", france24, AFP, archived from the original on 19 April 2019, retrieved 20 April 2019 Quote: "International outlets which visited the Indian air strike site in Pakistan found no evidence of a major terrorist training camp -- or of any infrastructure damage at all."
^Siobhan Heanue (14 April 2019), "The remote school at the centre of a dispute between nuclear neighbours Pakistan and India", Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), archived from the original on 13 April 2019, retrieved 20 April 2019 Quote: "One thing is clear: India's claim that it destroyed a militant training camp and killed more than 300 extremists cannot be backed up by the evidence. More than a month after India launched airstrikes inside Pakistan in retaliation for a militant attack that killed 40 paramilitary troops in Kashmir, foreign media have been allowed to see the areas hit."