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 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 Indian forces with a "sitting duck target" and caught the terrorists in their sleep, sources said.
“I want to assure the people that the country is in safe hands. There is nothing above the nation,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in 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.
Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale told the media 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 CRPF convoy in Pulwama in which 40 soldiers were killed. The JeM claimed responsibility for the Pulwama attack.
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 by covert US forces.
Gokhale also did not give details of how the attacks were carried out but sources said a group of Mirage 2000 jets was used to drop bombs in the operation, which included various other aircraft.
This is the first time since the 1971 war that India has used air power against Pakistan.
India received intelligence that the JeM had shifted many in-training terrorists and hardcore operatives, along with their trainers, to the camp, about 20 km from Balakot town, 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.
The entire operation, it is learnt, was over in 20 minutes, starting at 3.45 am and ending at 4.05 am.
"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, sources told PTI.
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.
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.
The JeM has been active in Pakistan for the last two decades and has its headquarters in Bahawalpur in Pakistan's Punjab province, he said in the statement.
He pointed out that the organisation is proscribed by the UN and has been responsible of a series of terrorist attacks, including on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 and the Pathankot airbase in January 2016.
News of the strike was welcomed by the entire political spectrum and military experts who had been advocating retribution after the Pulwama attack.
While BJP president Amit Shah congratulated the "bravery and valour" of the armed forces, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi said he saluted the pilots of the IAF.
National Conference leader Omar Abdullah said the strikes are a "totally new ball game" as it was for the first time that air power was used during peace time to hit terror targets in Pakistan.
There were scenes of celebrations in several parts of the country.
In a village in Karnataka's Mandya district, Kalavathi, who lost her husband H Guru in the Pulwama attack said Tuesday's action would give peace to those who were killed.
"I salute the Indian armed forces. I am happy with this action," she told reporters with tears in her eyes.
Bollywood stars also weighed in with their reactions, with Lata Mangeshkar, Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan among others congratulating the forces.
In Islamabad, the narrative was different with officials saying there were no casualties or damages.
In an early morning tweet, Major General Asif Ghafoor, director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the Pakistan Army, said Indian aircrafts intruded from the Muzaffarabad sector.
"Facing timely and effective response from Pakistan Air Force released payload in haste while escaping which fell near Balakot. No casualties or damage," Ghafoor said in a tweet.
"Indian Air Force violated Line of Control Pakistan. Pakistan Air Force immediately scrambled. Indian aircraft gone back," he claimed.
Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi called an "emergency meeting" at the Foreign Office for consultations, sources in Islamabad said.
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