Air Chief Marshal B S Dhanoa said IAF fighters successfully “bombed” targets they intended to in the Jaish-e-Muhammed facility at Balakot in Pakistan on February 26, and added that operations were still “ongoing” along the border following the India-Pakistan aerial combat a day after the Indian strike. The IAF chief refused comment on likely casualties at the Jaish camp, saying it was for the government to provide details. “We hit our targets. We don’t count human casualties, we count what targets we have hit or not. IAF doesn’t calculate casualty numbers, the government does that… It depends on how many people were there,” ACM Dhanoa said.
The IAF chief said Pakistan’s attempted retaliation clearly indicated that targets at Balakot were hit. “If we plan to hit the target, we hit the target. Otherwise, why would he (PM Imran Khan) have responded? If we dropped bombs in jungles, why would he respond?” he asked, adding the preliminary bomb damage assessment showed the Spice-2000 bombs had hit the pre-designated targets.
The reference to ongoing operations seems in context of a state of high alert after the Indian bombing of the Jaish camp and Pakistan’s retaliatory raid along the Line of Control near Nowshera in which a MiG-21 shot down a Pakistani F-16 and was itself brought down. The MiG pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s parachute landed in PoK and he was returned after a spell in captivity.
MiG-21 equipped with better weapons
Intelligence reports had indicated presence of over 300 terrorists at the JeM facility on that day. Pakistan has claimed IAF bombs fell in open forested areas but ACM Dhanoa said targets were struck. Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale had last week said “a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis were eliminated” in the February 26 operation.
Asked why ageing MiG-21s were deployed against Pakistani F-16s, which along with JF-17s and Mirage-5 attack jets had sought to target Indian military installations on February 27, ACM Dhanoa said, “See, one is a planned operation in which you plan and carry out, like the first strike we did. But when an adversary does a strike on you, every available aircraft goes in, irrespective of which aircraft it is. All aircraft are capable of fighting the enemy."
Dogfight between fighter jets
A day after Indian air strikes at JeM training camp in Balakot inside Pakistan, a dogfight ensued between the fighter jets from both countries and an Indian pilot was captured by Pakistani forces after he bailed out when his plane was shot down along the Line of Control, while rival armies continued to exchange heavy cross-border fire. The aerial skirmish began when three Pakistani fighters, out of a “fairly large formation” of over 10 F-16s, JF-17s and Mirage-5 attack jets, crossed the LoC in the Kalal area in Nowshera region of Rajouri. “The fighters came 6-7 km into our airspace,” a source said. A media report said four military installations were being targeted by the Pakistani planes - the Brigade headquarters in Krishna Ghati (Poonch), a battalion HQ in the vicinity in Nangi Tehri and the supply dump and ammunition point in Niyari.
The government said that IAF had “successfully foiled” an attempt by Pakistan to “target military installations” across the LoC by shooting down one of its jets - probably an F-16 - but also admitted it had lost a MiG-21 ‘Bison’ fighter and that one of the Indian pilots had gone “missing while in action.” Pakistan said the pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was in its custody. Pakistan claimed its fighters “locked on” to six Indian military targets, ranging from the brigade headquarters at Bhimber Gali to an ammunition dump at Narian, to demonstrate its “capability and resolve” but chose to drop bombs in open spaces to avoid any casualties.
India disputed Pakistan’s account that the latter’s jets could have hit Indian military assets but chose to spare them, and described PAF’s action as an unprovoked aggression that was thwarted by the scrambling of MiG-21s to intercept the Pakistani fighters. In the ensuing dogfight, one of the MiG-21s fired an R-73 missile to down a Pakistani fighter, while a MiG-21 was hit either by a missile fired by a Pakistani fighter or a surface-to-air missile. The heightened tensions led Pakistan to shut down its entire airspace, with India too temporarily suspending its civilian air traffic in its northern region. India summoned the acting high commissioner of Pakistan to issue a strong demarche against the “unprovoked act of aggression by Pakistan”, including violation of the Indian air space by PAF and targeting of Indian posts.
Wing Commander Abhinandan returns home
There was happiness across India after Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman was released by Pakistan on Friday last. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other leaders welcomed the brave pilot, who has become a hero for the entire nation after he showed immense grit and grace while in the enemy's captivity. Pakistan has changed the timing of his handover twice. New Delhi wanted to bring him back from Pakistan by a special flight, but was denied permission. Pakistan said Wing Commander Abhinandan was being released as a "gesture of peace." India had rejected Imran Khan's call for for a dialogue, saying there would be "no deal" on Abhinandan's release.