Tensions escalate, death tolls differ after India's airstrike on Pakistan over Kashmir

A pre-dawn airstrike inside Pakistan that India said targeted a terrorist training camp and killed a "very large number" of militants ratcheted up tensions on Tuesday between the two nuclear-armed rivals at odds over the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Airstrike followed a deadly suicide bombing in India's section of Kashmir that killed more than 40 soldiers

Pakistan said India launched an airstrike on its territory early Tuesday, while India said it targeted a terrorist training camp in a pre-emptive strike that killed a "very large number" of militants. (Dar Yasin/Associated Press)

Tensions escalated sharply on the Asian subcontinent Tuesday with nuclear-armed neighbors Pakistan and India trading accusations and warnings after a pre-dawn airstrike by India that New Delhi said targeted a terrorist training camp.

Pakistan said there were no casualties, while New Delhi called the attack a pre-emptive strike that hit a terrorist training camp and killed "a very large number" of militants.

The airstrike followed a suicide bombing in India's section of the disputed territory of Kashmir on Feb. 14 that killed more than 40 Indian soldiers. Pakistan has denied involvement in the attack but vowed to respond to any Indian military operation against it.

"It was the middle of the night — we were very scared," resident Mohammad Abba, 20, told The Associated Press. "We didn't think for a moment that it was from planes, but the explosions were very powerful."

Pakistan's military cordoned off the area and kept reporters about a kilometre from the bombing site.

Kashmir claimed by both countries

Kashmir is split between the two countries but claimed by each in its entirety. The Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for the bombing. The bomber, who made a video before the attack, was a resident of the Indian-controlled sector of Kashmir.

Pakistan's military spokesperson, Maj.-Gen. Asif Ghafoor, said the Indian "aircrafts" crossed into the Muzafarabad sector of Kashmir. He said Pakistan scrambled fighters, and the Indian jets "released payload in haste" near Balakot, on the edge of Pakistani-ruled Kashmir.

People are afraid, it's getting dark.- Shakir Ahmed

Several reporters, including an Associated Press journalist, trudged up the Kangaran Nallah hill to the site of Tuesday's bombing. They saw several large craters, a few upended trees and villagers wondering why they had been targeted.

"There are only mud-brick homes here. There is no madrasas. There isn't even a concrete house," said Noor Shah, 55, who lives about a half-kilometre from the site.

When the bombs struck, Shah said residents of his village of Jabba stayed indoors. It wasn't until morning when "we saw soldiers and learned from them that Indian planes dropped bombs in our village," he said.

Two of the dried mud structures were damaged in the explosions but no one was hurt, said Tahir Khan, 45, of the same village. He added that his frightened children refused to let him leave their side to go to work.

"No one has been killed, no one has been seriously hurt. But we want to know, what have we done that we were attacked?" asked Khan.

Conflicting claims on casualties

Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale told reporters in New Delhi that Indian fighter aircraft targeted Jaish-e-Mohammed camps in the pre-emptive strike after intelligence indicated another attack was being planned.

"Acting on intelligence, India early today stuck the biggest training camp of Jaish-e-Mohammed in Balakot," he said. "In this operation a very large number of Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and Jehadis being trained were eliminated."

Balakot police Chief Saghir Hussain Shah said he had sent teams to the area where the Indian bombs reportedly hit, which he described as a mostly deserted wooded area.

"There are no casualties, there are no damages on the ground because of the dropping of the bombs," he said.There was no immediate explanation for the differing accounts, but India and Pakistan routinely contradict each other.

Supporters of India's ruling Bhartiya Janata Party shout slogans as they celebrate reports of Indian aircraft bombing Pakistan territory, in New Delhi, India, Tuesday. (Altaf Qadri/Associated Press)

The Feb. 14 attack in Indian-ruled Kashmir was the worst on Indian forces since the start of the 1989 insurgency in Kashmir and came as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in the middle of a re-election campaign.

Addressing a rally of former soldiers in Rajasthan state on Tuesday, just hours after the airstrike, Modi said India was in "safe hands."

China, a close ally of Pakistan, urged both sides to show restraint.

"We hope that both India and Pakistan can ... take actions that will help stabilize the situation in the region and help to improve mutual relations, instead of the other way around," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang told reporters.

Insurgents have been demanding either outright independence or union with Pakistan. India routinely accuses Pakistan of arming and training militants who cross the mountainous Himalayan region. In the last year an increasingly bloody crackdown on insurgents in Indian-ruled Kashmir has escalated tensions in the troubled region.

Long-running conflict

Kashmir has been the cause of two previous wars between the uneasy neighbours. They fought a third war in 1971 over East Pakistan, which gained its independence with the help of India and became Bangladesh.

Pakistan has outlawed Jaish-e-Mohammed and seized its properties in south Punjab's Bawahalpur area, including religious schools and mosques. India has demanded that Jaish-e-Mohammad leader Azhar Masood be listed as a terrorist by the United Nations, but has been stymied by China.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan dismissed India's account of bombing a terrorist training camp as "self-serving, reckless and fictitious." Earlier this month, Khan had authorized the army to "respond decisively and comprehensively to any aggression or misadventure" by India, after New Delhi vowed a "jaw-breaking response" to the Kashmir suicide bombing.

Pakistani protesters burned posters of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an anti-India rally in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Monday. (Muhammadf Sajjad/Associated Press)

Pakistan said it was not involved in any way in the Kashmir attack and vowed to help investigate and to take action against anyone found to be using Pakistani soil for attacks on India. It also offered to hold a "dialogue" with India on all issues, including terrorism.

Lt.-Col. Devender Anand, an Indian army spokesperson, said Pakistani soldiers attacked Indian positions along the disputed Kashmir border region overnight. He called the attack an "unprovoked" violation of the 2003 ceasefire. He said there were no casualties and refused to discuss the Indian incursion into Pakistan.

Residents of Chikhoti, on the Pakistan side of the Line of Control, said they heard the roar of Indian jets as they crossed overhead. They said they had been expecting an Indian response after the attack earlier this month.

"We built bunkers near our home years ago and we will use them if there is any attack from India in our area," said Mohammad Shafiq, 55.

By evening Tuesday, India said Pakistani soldiers fired mortar shells and small-arms fire along the Line of Control. Anand, the Indian army spokesperson, said the Pakistani troops fired at the Nowshera, Poonch and Akhnoor sectors, prompting Indian troops to "strongly and befittingly" respond.

Shakir Ahmed, a resident of Poonch in Indian-controlled Kashmir, said people were hearing loud sounds of shelling.

"People are afraid, it's getting dark," he said. "We pray it doesn't escalate into war."