The pre-dawn operation, described as “non-military” and “preemptive” struck a five-star resort style camp on a hilltop forest and caught the terrorists in their sleep.
In a pinpointed and swift air strike that lasted less than two minutes, India pounded Jaish-e-Mohammed’s biggest training camp in Pakistan early on Tuesday, killing up to 350 terrorists and trainers who were moved there for their protection after the Pulwama attack, officials said.
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 with a “sitting duck target” and caught the terrorists in their sleep, sources said.
The strike is the first by the Indian Air Force inside Pakistan after the 1971 war.
“I want to assure the people that the country is in safe hands. There is nothing above the nation,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at a public rally in Churu, Rajasthan, in his first remarks after the strike. He, however, did not make a direct reference to the attack or give any details of the operation described by some as an aerial surgical strike.
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 Central Reserve Police Force 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 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 but 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.
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.
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 -- the country’s top security body -- hours after India’s air strikes, Pakistan 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.
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.”
Pakistan army spokesman Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor said it 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.
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.
“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, said sources.
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.
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, Bharatiya Janata Party 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.