Indian security guards at the crash site after an Indian Air Force aircraft crashed in Kashmir on February 27. Photo: AFP / Faisal Khan/ Anadolu

Pakistan claimed on Wednesday it had shot down two Indian warplanes in its airspace over disputed Kashmir in a dramatic escalation of a confrontation that has ignited fears of an all-out conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbors. However, reports from India claimed one of the aircraft was a helicopter.

Reports said one Indian pilot was captured, according to a Pakistani military spokesman, who added that one aircraft went down in Pakistani-held Kashmir while the other fell on the Indian side of the heavily militarized de facto border dividing the Himalayan territory.

The clash came after combat jets from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) bombed Indian positions across the Line of Control (LoC) in Indian-administered Kashmir in the early hours of Wednesday in retaliation for similar raids by the Indian Air Force (IAF) on Tuesday.

Pakistan earlier claimed to have two IAF pilots in custody, but later retracted the statement and said that they had only one Indian pilot. The Pakistan Army released a video of the Indian fighter pilot, who was heard identifying himself as “Wing Commander Abhinandan.” Indian officials have now confirmed that the pilot is “missing in action.”

Pakistan Army spokesperson earlier said they captured two IAF pilots but later changed the statement. Photo:Twitter

He has been identified as Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was flying a MiG 21 BISON. He is an IAF pilot and was on Operational Readiness Platform (ORP), a term used for pilots who are on standby to repel any intrusions by enemy aircraft. Varthaman, said Indian defense officials, scrambled and was quickly airborne when Pakistani intrusions were detected. His aircraft was shot down while chasing the returning Pakistani fighters.

The escalation between the two nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors comes after a terror attack killed 40 Indian policemen in Indian-administered Kashmir on February 14. An IAF helicopter also crashed soon after the Pakistani air raids in the area of Budgam.

Screen grab of Major General Asif Ghafoor, Pakistan military’s official spokesperson confirms airstrikes across LoC. Photo: Twitter

According to the Pakistan military’s official spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor, two Indian jets had been shot down by Pakistan’s F-16 combat jets. However, Indian authorities said one of the aircraft was a helicopter and its crash was attributed to a “technical snag.” Two bodies were recovered from the crash site, one the pilot and the other a civilian, according to sources in India.

Meanwhile, according to Ghafoor, the IAF jets were shot down after they crossed the Line of Control. While there was no official confirmation, Indian defense sources told Asia Times the Indian jets were kept on an Operational Readiness Platform (ORP) to scramble at any sign of an air intrusion and had taken off in response to the Pakistan raid.

It was not clear if the jet Pakistan claimed to have shot down was one of those planes. The Line of Control (LoC) is a nebulous line on the ground and keeps changing as the two armies duel over it every day. Therefore, crossing the LoC during air combat operations is a real possibility.

Earlier, three Pakistani F-16 jets entered Indian airspace over Indian-administered Kashmir across the Nowshera and Poonch sectors. The jets dropped bombs near an Indian Army post in Rajouri. Indian officials claim that IAF jets patrolling the area pushed the Pakistani aircraft back across the LoC.

According to Ghafoor, the PAF chose four targets, including Bhimber Gali, Narian and Nowshera, but Pakistan did not want to escalate. Pakistan called it a demonstration of their ability to carry out a retaliatory strike against India.

“The sole purpose of this action was to demonstrate our right, will and capability for self-defense. We do not wish to escalate, but are fully prepared if forced into that paradigm,” Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson Dr Mohammad Faisal tweeted.

A screen grab of commercial flights diverted as tensions escalate between Pakistan and India. Photo: Twitter

Meanwhile, all commercial air routes over the western border between India and Pakistan was quickly diverted as a precautionary measure. Following the plane crash inside Indian-administered Kashmir, India closed its airspace and airports in Leh, Pathankot, Jammu, Srinagar and Amritsar and put its forces on high alert.

Meanwhile, Pakistan suspended flights across major airports in Punjab, including Lahore, Multan, Faisalabad, Sialkot and Islamabad.

Upping the ante

Soon after the Indian raids, Major General Ghafoor warned that Pakistan would retaliate against IAF jet raids, telling India to “wait for a surprise.” As reported by Asia Times, Pakistan was under increasing pressure to respond to Indian strikes given that they had targeted Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and not merely the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Questions were raised over the PAF’s “inability” to detect the IAF jets, which penetrated more than 50 miles into Pakistan’s territory and returned without being challenged.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan called an emergency meeting at the Foreign Office on Tuesday and with the National Command Authority (NCA) on Wednesday. The NCA oversees Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, a move seen by Indian analysts as a means to up the ante.

Diplomatic sources confirmed that the meeting had been informed that no militant camps were hit by Indian jets. Officials also revealed that the plan to strike India on Wednesday was finalized in Tuesday’s meeting.

Khan will chair an NCA meeting on Wednesday to discuss any follow-up action amid ongoing air and land skirmishes with India. The meeting will discuss preparations for possible Indian retaliation to the Pakistani bombings and devise a long-term plan to counter Indian military action.

Similarly, India’s union home minister Rajnath Singh called for a meeting of the Indian service and intelligence chiefs along with the national security adviser, Ajit Doval. It is expected that prime minister Narendra Modi will hold a meeting of the cabinet committee on security later in the evening to assess India’s response.

According to top Indian security officials, there was credible intelligence after Indian Special Forces raids in September 2016 that Pakistan would react to any further action by India. “The morning raids proved our intelligence to be correct,” a senior Indian security official told Asia Times.

Officials maintain that Pakistan was hoping to halt cross-border attacks and settle the conflict diplomatically amidst rising tensions between the two nuclear-armed states. Earlier, officials said cross-border mortar and artillery shelling across the LoC killed at least four civilians in Pakistan-administered Kashmir on Tuesday.

On Monday, Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa visited the Pakistan Air Force headquarters and headquarters of the Rawalpindi Corps Commander to discuss the readiness of troops and aircraft along the LoC.

India accused Pakistan of shielding Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the group that claimed the suicide attack, which prompted Tuesday’s air raid targeting the group’s hideouts. Meanwhile, Islamabad has asked New Delhi to provide “actionable evidence” of the Pulawama attack originating in Pakistan.

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