(BALAKOT, Pakistan) — 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.
Islamabad said there were no casualties in the strike near the town of Balakot, close to the border with Pakistan’s sector of Kashmir, where residents said loud explosions woke them up, rattling their homes.
“It was the middle of the night, we were very scared,” one resident, 20-year old Mohammad Abbas to 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 kilometer (half a mile) from the bombing site.
The airstrike was the latest escalation since a deadly suicide bombing in India’s section of Kashmir earlier this month killed more than 40 Indian soldiers. Pakistan has denied involvement in the attack but vowed to respond to any Indian military operation against it.
Kashmir is split between the two countries but claimed by each in its entirety. The Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility for the bombing. The bomber, who made a video before the attack, was a resident of Indian-controlled sector of Kashmir.
Pakistan’s military spokesman, Maj. Gen Asif Ghafoor, said Indian planes crossed into the Muzafarabad sector of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. He said Pakistan scrambled fighters and the Indian jets “released payload in haste” near Balakot.
India’s foreign secretary, Vijay Gokhale, told reporters in New Delhi that Indian fighter jets targeted Jaish-e-Mohammad camps in a 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-Mohammad in Balakot,” he said. “In this operation a very large number of Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and jihadis 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,” he said.
There was no immediate explanation for the differing accounts, but India and Pakistan routinely contradict one another.
The Feb. 14 attack in Indian-ruled Kashmir was the worst attack 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 soldier’s in the Indian state of Rajasthan hours after the airstrike, Modi said India was in “safe hands.”
“I vow that I will not let the country bow down,” he said.
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,” said China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang.
Insurgents in the Indian-controlled Kashmir 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.
Kashmir has been the cause of two wars between the uneasy neighbors. They fought a third war in 1979 over East Pakistan, which gained independence with the help of India and became Bangladesh.
Pakistan has outlawed Jaish-e-Mohammad and seized its properties in south Punjab’s Bawahalpur area, including religious schools and mosques. India has demanded that Jaish-e-Mohammad’s leader, Azhar Masood, be listed as a terrorist by the United Nations, but has been stymied by China.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi condemned Tuesday’s incursion, saying New Delhi had “endangered” peace in the region for political gains.
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.
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 spokesman, said Pakistani soldiers attacked Indian positions overnight along the boundary in Kashmir, the so-called Line of Control. He called the attack an “unprovoked” violation of the 2003 cease-fire. He said there were no casualties and refused to discuss India’s 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 spokesman, 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.”