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Pakistan says it has shot down two Indian aircraft in its airspace

KABUL —   Pakistan said it shot down two Indian aircraft from inside its airspace Wednesday and launched strikes inside Indian-controlled Kashmir, one day after India sent jets into Pakistani territory for the first time since 1971 and dropped bombs there.

The tit-for-tat aerial strikes and accompanying aerial dogfights marked the first serious military escalation between the two nuclear-armed rivals in two decades. Both countries claim the Himalayan Kashmir region, which is divided by a militarized “Line of Control.”

India has confirmed one of its planes was shot down by Pakistani planes and a pilot is missing.

In the midst of the mounting tensions, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed the nation and said he did not want to see war with India and urged, “Let’s settle this with talks.” He said his government had offered to cooperate in investigating the recent terror bombing in India Kashmir, and had warned against Indian aggression.

“Our action was only intended to convey that if you can come into our country, we can do the same,” he said, referring to Wednesday’s airstrikes.

“With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford a miscalculation?” Khan said.Pakistan: India airstrike an act of ‘uncalled for aggression’

On Feb. 26, Pakistani officials said India’s airstrike on “terror camps” inside Pakistan placed regional peace “at grave risk” and warned of retaliation.(Reuters)

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said its air force strikes were aimed at “nonmilitary targets” to avoid human loss and damage. It said Pakistan has “no intention of escalation, but we are fully prepared to do so if forced.”

Pakistan’s military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, wrote on Twitter that two Indian fighter jets “crossed into Pakistani territory and were shot down” Wednesday in response to Pakistan’s strikes. He said one Indian plane had fallen in Indian-controlled territory, and the other in a Pakistan-controlled area.

Two Indian pilots have been arrested by Pakistani troops.

India confirmed that one MiG-21 fighter jet was shot down in an “aerial engagement” with Pakistani forces on Wednesday morning. The pilot is missing in action, said Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs. He said that one Pakistani fighter jet was also shot down in the encounter.

Kumar said Wednesday’s clash began when Pakistan targeted military installations on the Indian side of Kashmir with airstrikes. “The Indian Air Force responded instantly,” he said. In the wake of the strikes, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held an emergency meeting with top security officials.

Indian army soldiers arrive near the wreckage of an Indian aircraft after it crashed in Budgam area, outskirts of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Wednesday, Feb.27, 2019. (Mukhtar Khan/AP)

Despite claims about wanting to avoid escalation, a mood of belligerent triumph spread across Pakistani news stations and online Wednesday. War songs were played, commentators praised the Pakistan military and shouts of “God is greatest” could be heard. Images of an Indian plane with burning debris were showed repeatedly.

 Pakistani officials also claimed Wednesday afternoon that India had committed “unprovoked cease-fire violations” along the Line of Control on Tuesday, resulting in the deaths of four civilians, three of them women. A Foreign Ministry statement named the four individuals but did not say where or how they had died. It called the targeting of civilian areas “deplorable” and said such cease-fire violations could lead to a “strategic miscalculation.”

The tension erupted in the wake of a terrorist bombing Feb. 14 inside Indian-controlled Kashmir that killed 40 paramilitary troops. It was the deadliest attack in 30 years of conflict and protests, and it was claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed. Pakistan denied any link to the attack and Prime Minister Imran Khan pledged to investigate if India presented credible evidence of Pakistani involvement.

On Tuesday, India claimed that its bombing had been aimed at a training camp operated by Jaish-e-Mohammed, and had killed scores of people there in retaliation for the Kashmir attack. But Pakistan maintained the Indian bombs had fallen on a vacant rural area with no loss of life and promised to take journalists to see the site.

At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Ghafoor confirmed that two Indian pilots had been arrested but gave no further details. 

“Today’s action was in self-defense,” Ghafoor said, saying that Pakistani planes had struck six targets near the Line of Control, but that officials had made sure there was no collateral damage and “no human life was affected.

Ghafoor also said it would be “insane to talk about” the possibility of using nuclear weapons. “We must not talk about this.”

Pakistani commentators warned that the situation could rapidly spiral out of control. Some urged both governments to be cautious and avoid further provocation, but many blamed India for the escalation and expressed defiant bravado. The two countries have fought three brief, conventional wars that ended in cease-fires, most recently a high-altitude ground conflict in 1999, shortly after both conducted nuclear tests.  

“What we saw today is the beginning, and things could move to war. If that happens, it would be catastrophic,” Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, a longtime federal minister, said Wednesday. “Indians have committed an extreme stupidity and today we have given our response . . . They don’t know who they have challenged.”

Imad Zafar, a columnist writing in the online Pakistan Tribune, warned that the Indian attack was a “trap” set by Modi, a Hindu nationalist who is running for reelection. “A war between two nuclear-armed states can only bring destruction on both sides. We may destroy each other in a matter of minutes,” he wrote, calling for bilateral dialogue. “We don’t want war, India. Neither should you.”

As tensions mounted, commercial flights were suspended across Pakistan and a swath of northwestern India. Flight tracking websites showed no commercial flights in the air in Pakistan on Wednesday afternoon and none across most of the Indian states of Punjab, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Jammu & Kashmir.

Vistara, an Indian airline, wrote that “due to airspace restrictions,” flights in the cities of Srinagar, Jammu, Amritsar and Chandigarh were on hold. An official at the Airports Authority of India declined to comment.