By Abu Arqam Naqash and Fayaz Bukhari | Reuters
MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan/SRINAGAR, India — A top Indian minister said on Saturday the government would not share proof that “a very large number” of militants were killed in air strikes inside Pakistan this week, after doubts were raised there were any casualties in the attack that stoked tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals.
The flare up appeared to be easing on Saturday after Pakistan handed back a captured Indian fighter pilot Friday night, amid efforts by global powers to prevent another war between the arch enemies.
However shelling across the Line of Control (LoC) that acts as a de facto border in the disputed Kashmir region, a frequent feature in recent weeks, continued, said military officials on both sides.
Hostilities escalated rapidly following a suicide car bombing Feb. 14 that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Indian-controlled Kashmir. India accuses Pakistan of harboring the Jaish-e Mohammad Islamist group that claimed the bombing.
Indian warplanes carried out air strikes Tuesday inside northeast Pakistan’s Balakot on what New Delhi called militant camps. Islamabad denied any such camps existed, as did local villagers in the area when Reuters visited.
Nevertheless, Pakistan retaliated Wednesday with its own aerial mission.
Pakistan said the Indian bombs hit a largely empty hillside without hurting anyone. Some Indian opposition leaders have asked the government to share evidence of the strikes.
But India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s top lieutenants, said “no security agencies ever share operational details.”
“It’s a very irresponsible stand,” Jaitley said at a conference organized by the India Today media group.
“The armed forces must have, and our security and intelligence agencies must have, a full leeway in dealing with situations, and if anybody wants operational details to be made public … he certainly does not understand the system.”
Indian Air Force officials said earlier it was up to the political leaders to decide when and how to release evidence of the Balakot strike.
Jaitley dismissed suggestions that the rapid escalation in tensions with Pakistan had anything to do with India’s domestic politics ahead of a general election due by May. Pollsters expect the ruling party to benefit from the nationalistic passion sweeping the country.
Pilot walks across the border
Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who became the face and symbol of the biggest clash between India and Pakistan in many years, walked across the border just before 9 p.m. on Friday in a high-profile handover shown on live television.
Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman met him at a New Delhi defense hospital Saturday, where he was seen in his air force jumpsuit. He will undergo medical checks before rejoining active duty, officials said.
Pakistan’s military said Saturday its air force and navy “continue to be alert and vigilant,” while two of its soldiers were killed after exchanging fire with Indian troops along the LoC. India’s military said that Pakistan was firing mortar shells across the LoC.
Pakistan touted Abhinandan’s return as “as a goodwill gesture aimed at de-escalating rising tensions with India” after weeks of unease that threatened to spiral into war.
Global powers, including China and the United States, have urged restraint to prevent another conflict between the neighbors who have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947.
Pakistani leaders say the ball is now in India’s court to de-escalate the tensions, though the Pakistani army chief told top military leaders of the United States, Britain and Australia on Friday that his country would “surely respond to any aggression in self-defense.”
On a visit to Jammu and Kashmir state on Saturday, India’s army chief asked soldiers to remain vigilant to “counter the nefarious designs of the enemy and anti-national elements.”
Additional reporting by Saad Sayeed; writing by Drazen Jorgic and Krishna N. Das; editing by Kim Coghill, Muralikumar Anantharaman and Ros Russell.