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India launches airstrike inside Pakistan; Islamabad denies militant camp hit





India's Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale speaks during a media briefing in New Delhi, India, February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

ISLAMABAD/NEW DELHI, February 26 (Reuters) - India said its warplanes struck a militant training camp inside Pakistan on Tuesday, killing "a very large number" of fighters, raising risk of conflict between the nuclear armed neighbours, though Pakistan officials denied there had been any casualties.

The airstrike near the town of Balakot, some
50 kilometres (31 miles) from the frontier was the deepest cross-border
raid launched by India since the last of its three wars with Pakistan in
1971.

Pakistan condemned the Indian action and said it would respond at a time and place of its choice.

The
airstrikes, according to the Indian government, hit a training camp of
Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), the group that claimed credit for a suicide car
bomb attack that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in
Kashmir on February 14. The action was ordered as India said it had
intelligence that Jaish was planning more attacks.

"In the face of
imminent danger, a preemptive strike became absolutely necessary,"
Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale told reporters.

"The existence
of such training facilities, capable of training hundreds of jihadis
could not have functioned without the knowledge of the Pakistani
authorities," Gokhale said.

Pakistan denies harbouring JeM, a
primarily anti-India group that forged ties with al Qaeda and has been
on a U.N. terror list since 2001. In December 2001, Jaish fighters,
along with members of another Pakistan-based militant group,
Lashkar-e-Taiba, launched an attack on India's parliament, which almost
led to a fourth war.

China, Pakistan's long-time ally, urged both countries to exercise restraint as tensions rose to the highest in years.

"We
hope that India and Pakistan can exercise restraint, and take steps
that are conducive to stabilising the regional situation and improving
bilateral ties, rather than the opposite," Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu
Kang told a daily news briefing in Beijing.

Gokhale said "a very
large number" of militants were killed in the strikes by French-made
Mirage 2000 jets on a Jaish training camp near Balakot, a town in
Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

The commander of the camp was Maulana Yusuf Azhar, a brother-in-law of JeM leader Masood Azhar, Gokhale said.

A
senior Indian government source said that 300 militants had been killed
in the strikes and that the warplanes had ventured as far as 80 km (50
miles) inside Pakistan. But no evidence was immediately provided to back
up the claims of militant casualties.

"I want to assure you our
country is in safe hands," Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a cheering
political rally in western India hours after the raid.

"I won't let the country down," said Modi, who faces a tight election in coming months.

There
has been mounting impatience in India to avenge the February 14 attack,
which was the most deadly seen in Kashmir during an insurgency that has
last three decades, and as news of the raid broke, celebrations erupted
across the country.

NO TERROR CAMPS

Pakistan's top
civilian and military leaders rejected India's comments that it had
struck "terror camps" inside Pakistan, vowing to prove wrong India's
claims and warning that it would retaliate against Indian aggression.

Pakistan's
National Security Committee (NSC), comprising top officials including
Prime Minister Imran Khan and army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, said in a
statement that it "strongly rejected Indian claim of targeting an
alleged terrorist camp near Balakot and the claim of heavy casualties."

The
statement said Khan would "engage with global leadership to expose
irresponsible Indian policy". It also warned that "Pakistan shall
respond at the time and place of its choosing" to Indian aggression.

Earlier
the Pakistan military said its own warplanes had chased off the Indian
aircraft before they could inflict any real harm. A spokesman said the
Indian warplanes dropped their "payload" in a forested area, causing no
casualties and no serious material damage.

"Indian aircraft
intruded from Muzaffarabad sector," Pakistani military spokesman Major
General Asif Ghafoor said on Twitter, referring to an area in the
Pakistan-held part of Kashmir.

Ghafoor said the intruders faced a
"timely and effective response from Pakistan Air Force", and "released
payload in haste, while escaping, which fell near Balakot."

"No casualties or damage," he tweeted.

Ghafoor
also posted four pictures of the alleged site, purportedly showing a
bomb crater in a forest area but no serious damage.

Pakistani
villagers in the area where the Indian jets struck said they heard four
loud bangs in the early hours of Tuesday but reported only one person
was wounded.

"We saw fallen trees and one damaged house, and four
craters where the bombs had fallen," said Mohammad Ajmal, a 25-year-old
who visited the site.

Indian television networks reported the
airstrikes took place at 3.30 am and involved a dozen Mirage fighter
planes backed up by Israeli-equipped Airborne Warning and Control
Systems (AWACS) aircraft that patrolled on India's side of the border.

Balakot
is about 50 km (30 miles) from Line of Control (LoC), the ceasefire
line that is the de facto border in Kashmir, a Himalayan region that has
been the cause of two of the three wars India and Pakistan have fought
since the end of British colonial rule in 1947.

Analysts have
alleged Pakistani militants have their training camps in the area,
although Pakistan has always denied the presence of any such camps.

Mohammed
Iqbal, a resident of Mendhar, a long way further south on the Indian
side of the LoC, told Reuters that he heard jets flying through the
night.

Shelling across the LoC has occurred frequently over the past few years but airspace violations by jets are extremely rare.

Following
another large attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir in 2016,
India said its troops crossed the LoC to carry out a "surgical strike"
on suspected militant camps in Pakistan Kashmir. Islamabad denied
anything serious occurred.

Indian markets slipped amid concerns
over the risk of conflict. The rupee weakened to 71.16 per dollar
compared with Monday's close of 70.9850.

The 10-year benchmark
bond yield rose to 7.61 percent compared with 7.58 percent on Monday,
while the broader NSE stock index declined 1.17 percent.