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Air skirmish as Pakistani jets drop bombs in Kashmir, Islamabad claims to shoot down two Indian fighters

An Indian Air Force Mirage fighter jet. India and Pakistan exchanged fire along their contested border in Kashmir on Feb 27, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Pan Pacific Agency | COMMUICATION AGENCY FOR PACIFICA REGIONS

SRINAGAR/NEW DELHI, Feb 27, 2019, Reuters, AFP, Bloomberg. Pakistan shot down two Indian Air Force planes in its airspace in Kashmir on Wednesday (Feb 27), a military spokesman said, adding that one Indian pilot had been captured, reported The Straits Times.

“PAF shot down two Indian aircraft inside Pakistani airspace,” tweeted military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor, adding that one aircraft had fallen in Pakistani-held Kashmir, while the other crashed on the Indian side.

“One Indian pilot arrested by troops on ground while two in the area,” he said without elaborating further.

But Indian air force sources rejected the claim and told CNN-IBN that all pilots have been “accounted for”.

Police officials on the Indian side of Kashmir said that two Indian pilots and a civilian had died after an Indian air force plane crashed in Kashmir, but did not confirm if the plane had been shot down by Pakistani forces.

News agency ANI reported that India also shot down a Pakistan air force F-16 fighter jet. The fighter jet was shot down in Indian retaliatory fire 3km within Pakistan territory in Lam valley, Nowshera sector.

Islamabad said it had struck across the Line of Control, the de facto border between India and Pakistan, from “within Pakistani airspace”.

“This was not a retaliation to continued Indian belligerence. Pakistan has therefore, taken strikes at non-military target, avoiding human loss and collateral damage. Sole purpose being to demonstrate our right, will and capability for self-defence,” Islamabad said in a statement.

“This is unprecedented territory, we haven’t had tit-for-tat air strikes between India and Pakistan since the 1971 war,” said Mr Anit Mukherjee, a former Indian Army major and assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, by phone.

“We don’t know what will come from this. But it seems like Pakistan has given a response. And there have been casualties – captures, deaths.”

“We have had this sort of thing happening on the ground for the last 20 years,” Mr Mukherjee added. “It’s basically a shifting of the conflict to the air.”

CNN-IBN reported that commercial air traffic had been shut down in Chandigarh, Amritsar, Leh and the whole of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, with some flights returning to their cities of origin and others cancelled. Flight operations were also suspended at Dehradun airport.

Pakistani media reported that Peshawar’s Bacha Khan International Airport was temporarily closed for commercial flights, with the airport to be used for military purposes. Karachi-based Dawn news organisation also said that a red alert has been issued.

A Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight to New Delhi was cancelled due to the tensions, while another PIA flight from Manchester to Lahore was also stopped from taking off.

India and Pakistan exchanged fire along their contested border in Kashmir on Wednesday (Feb 27), a day after Indian warplanes struck inside Pakistan for the first time since a war in 1971, while leading powers urged the nuclear armed rivals to show restraint.

It is the first time in history that two nuclear armed powers have conducted air strikes on each other, while ground forces have exchanged fire in more than a dozen locations.

Tensions have been elevated since a suicide car bombing by Pakistan-based militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police on Feb 14, but the risk of conflict rose dramatically on Tuesday when India launched an air strike on what it said was a militant training base.

The attack targeted the Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group, which claimed credit for the suicide attack.

But while India said a large number of JeM fighters had been killed, Pakistani officials said the Indian air strike was a failure and inflicted no casualties.

On Tuesday evening, Pakistan began shelling using heavy calibre weapons in 12 to 15 places along the de facto border in Kashmir, known as the Line of Control (LoC), a spokesman for the Indian defence forces said on Wednesday.

“The Indian Army retaliated for effect and our focused fire resulted in severe destruction to five posts and number of casualties,” the spokesman said.

Five Indian soldiers suffered minor wounds in the shelling that ended on Wednesday morning, he added.

“So far there are no (civilian) casualties, but there is panic among people,” said Poonch district deputy commissioner Rahul Yadav said.

“We have an evacuation plan in place and if need arises we will evacuate people to safer areas,” he said.

Local officials on the Pakistani side said at least four people had been killed and seven wounded, though it was unclear if the casualties were civilian or military.

India has also continued its crackdown on suspected militants operating in Kashmir, a mountainous region that both countries claim in full but rule in part.

On Wednesday, security forces killed two Jaish militants in a gun battle, Indian police said.

HEIGHTENED SECURITY

Pakistan had promised to retaliate over Tuesday’s air strikes, and security across India has been tightened.

The two countries have fought three wars since independence from British colonial rule in 1947 and went to the brink of a fourth war in 2002 after a Pakistani militant attack on India’s Parliament.

In Punjab, an Indian state that borders Pakistan, security alerts are in place in several districts, according to media reports.

Schools within 5 kilometres of LoC were closed in one district in Kashmir.

In Mumbai, India’s financial capital, there was a visible increase in security levels in a city that has suffered numerous militant attacks in the past.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke separately with the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan and urged them to avoid “further military activity” following Tuesday’s air strike.

“I expressed to both ministers that we encourage India and Pakistan to exercise restraint, and avoid escalation at any cost,” Mr Pompeo said in a statement on Wednesday.

“I also encouraged both ministers to prioritise direct communication and avoid further military activity,” he said.

Both China and the European Union have also called for restraint.

On Wednesday, New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Winston Peters also voiced concern over the escalation in tensions.

Pakistan has sought help from the United Nations to de-escalate the situation, while India – which is facing national elections in a few weeks – reached out to countries including the US, UK, China, France and Russia and urged the government in Islamabad to take action against terror groups based in the country.

India, Russia and China issued a joint communique on Wednesday after a meeting of their foreign ministers in which they said that extremist groups cannot be supported and used in political and geopolitical goals, and those backing terrorist acts must be held accountable and brought to justice.

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