India strikes Pakistan in severe escalation of tensions between nuclear rivals

India attacks Pakistan

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India’s foreign secretary, Vijay Gokhale, said the Feb. 26 airstrike in Pakistan targeted a training camp run by the militants that claimed responsibility for an attack that killed 40 Indian paramilitary officers earlier this month. (Associated Press)

NEW DELHI —An airstrike launched by India on a target within Pakistan marks the most serious escalation in hostilities between the two nuclear-armed neighbors in decades and risks triggering a cycle of retaliation.

Early Tuesday, India sent fighter jets across the Line of Control, the unofficial frontier that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, for the first time since 1971. The planes dropped bombs outside the town of Balakot, about 40 miles into Pakistani territory.

Pakistan said the strike hit an unpopulated wooded area, but India said the location was the site of a training camp used by Jaish-e-Muhammad, a Pakistan-based militant group that is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States.

Jaish-e-Muhammad claimed responsibility for an attack on Feb. 14 that killed 40 Indian paramilitary police in Kashmir. The attack was the deadliest in three decades of insurgency against Indian rule, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had vowed to respond.

The Pakistani village Balakot, pictured on Tuesday, the day an airstrike launched by India hit nearby. (Aqeel Ahmed/AP)
In the wake of Tuesday’s strike, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called an emergency meeting of top security and government officials. “India has committed uncalled for aggression to which Pakistan shall respond at the time and place of its choosing,” the group said in a statement released after the meeting.

It remains unclear whether the current clash will intensify. India emphasized that it had not struck any Pakistani military targets and called the strike a “preemptive action” specifically aimed at countering Jaish-e-Muhammad.

India’s strike reflects its deep frustration with its neighbor, which it has accused of sheltering and sponsoring militants, something Pakistan denies. The operation also comes just weeks before national elections in India where Modi — a hawk on matters of national security — will seek a second term.

The relationship between the two rivals is nearly always tense. India and Pakistan often trade artillery fire across the Line of Control in Kashmir, the Himalayan region they both claim. India also says that it has carried out commando raids just over the frontier, most recently in 2016.

But India has not launched fighter jets across the Line of Control since it fought a war with its neighbor in 1971, experts said. The last time tensions were this high between the two countries was in 1999, when they clashed in a brief but intense conflict on a high-altitude battleground in the Kargil area of Kashmir.

For India, Tuesday’s strike represents “a significant departure from an earlier kind of restraint,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, a security expert and former Indian naval officer. The use of air power in a cross-border operation means that India is prepared to risk “possible escalation” by Pakistan.

So far, the United States has backed India in its quest to respond to the Feb. 14 attack. Two days after the suicide bombing, John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser, said the United States supported “India’s right to self-defense.”

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