ISLAMABAD/NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India and Pakistan both said they shot down each other's fighter jets on Wednesday, with Pakistan capturing an Indian pilot a day after Indian warplanes struck inside Pakistan for the first time since a 1971 war, prompting world powers to urge restraint.
Both countries have ordered air strikes over the last two days, the first time in history that two nuclear-armed powers have done so, while ground forces have exchanged fire in more than a dozen locations.
Tension has been running high since a suicide car bombing by Pakistan-based militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police on Feb. 14, but the risk of conflict rose dramatically on Tuesday when India launched an air strike on what it said was a militant training base.
A senior Indian government source said that 300 militants were killed in Tuesday's strike. Pakistan says no one was killed.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called for talks with India and hoped “better sense” would prevail so that both sides could de-escalate.
“History tells us that wars are full of miscalculation. My question is that, given the weapons we have, can we afford miscalculation,” Khan said during a brief televised broadcast to the nation. “We should sit down and talk.”
The Pakistan government's official Twitter account released a video of what it claimed was an Indian pilot who had been shot down.
The man, whom Pakistan has named as Wing Commander Abhi Nandan, whose face is bloodied and blindfolded, gives his name and service number, before telling a man questioning him: “I'm sorry sir, that's all I'm supposed to tell you.”
A statement from India's foreign ministry said the pilot's treatment was a “vulgar display of an injured personnel of the Indian Air Force in violation of all norms of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention”, ordering his immediate release. India has not yet named the pilot.
In a second video circulating on social media, a screenshot of which was shared by the same Pakistan government account, the pilot was seen sipping tea while praising his treatment by the Pakistani military.
Reuters could not independently verify the second video's authenticity.
Pakistan and India have fought three wars since independence from British colonial rule in 1947, two over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, and went to the brink a fourth in 2002 after a Pakistani militant attack on India's parliament.
The latest escalation marks a sudden turnaround in relations between the two countries, that both claim Kashmir in full but rule in part. As recently as November, Pakistan's Khan spoke of “mending ties” with India.
The conflict also comes at a critical time for Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi, who faces a general election in a matter of months.
Modi's decision to order air strikes could benefit him politically, according to analysts and pollsters, but he was accused on Wednesday by opposition parties of capitalizing on conflict.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi criticized the “blatant politicisation of the sacrifices made by our armed forces”, in a joint statement by 21 opposition parties, the first time they have broken ranks with the government over the issue.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke separately with the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan and urged them to avoid “further military activity” following Tuesday's air strike.
“I expressed to both ministers that we encourage India and Pakistan to exercise restraint, and avoid escalation at any cost,” Pompeo said in a statement on Wednesday.
“I also encouraged both ministers to prioritize direct communication and avoid further military activity,” he said.
Both China and the European Union have also called for restraint.
Many of the facts in the latest series of engagements are disputed by the two sides.
Major General Asif Ghafoor, spokesman for the Pakistan armed forces, said two Indian jets had been shot down after they entered Pakistani airspace while responding to a Pakistani aerial mission on targets in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
One of the jets crashed on the Indian-controlled side of the de facto border in Kashmir, known as the Line of Control, and the other on the Pakistani side.
Ghafoor said the Pakistani aircraft had carried out the strikes in response to India's air strike the day before but had taken deliberate action to ensure no casualties were caused.
The Pakistani jets had locked on to six targets, in a demonstration of their capacity to hit strategic installations, but deliberately fired into open spaces where there would be no casualties.
“This was not a retaliation in true sense, but to tell Pakistan has capability, we can do it, but we want to be responsible, we don't want an escalation, we don't want a war,” Ghafoor told a news conference.
One of the aircraft fell on India's side of Kashmir, while the second came down in Pakistani-held territory with two pilots captured, he added.
Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for India's foreign ministry, gave a different account, telling a news briefing that the Pakistan air strikes on military targets had been “foiled”.
India shot down one Pakistani plane that landed in Pakistani territory, and that it had lost one of its own planes, not two, with the pilot “missing in action”, Kumar added.
“Pakistan has claimed that he is in their custody. We are ascertaining the facts,” Kumar said.
Pakistan denies it lost a plane in the encounter.
At the Pakistani briefing, Ghafoor produced photographs of weapons and identity documents he said were carried by Indian pilots.
Pakistan initially said that two Indian pilots had been captured, before clarifying it only had one in its custody.
The Indian air force has ordered Kashmir's main airport in Srinagar along with at least three others in neighboring states to close, an official said.
Pakistan shut its airspace, with commercial flights in the country canceled. Flights from the Middle East and India were also affected.
In a separate incident, police officials in Indian-occupied Kashmir said that four passengers and a civilian had died after an Indian aircraft crashed in Kashmir. The craft was initially reported by officials to be a plane, but a partial tail number from the craft seen by a Reuters witness showed it to be an Mi17 military helicopter.
The cause of the crash was unknown.
The aerial engagement followed overnight artillery fire by both sides. Pakistan used heavy caliber weapons in 12 to 15 places along the Line of Control, a spokesman for the Indian defense forces said on Wednesday.
“The Indian Army retaliated for effect and our focused fire resulted in severe destruction to five posts and number of casualties,” the spokesman said.
Five Indian soldiers suffered minor wounds in the shelling that ended on Wednesday morning, he added.
“So far there are no (civilian) casualties but there is panic among people,” said Rahul Yadav, the deputy commissioner of the Poonch district on the Indian side where some of the shelling took place.
“We have an evacuation plan in place and if need arises we will evacuate people to safer areas,” he said.
Officials on the Pakistani side said at least four people had been killed and seven wounded, including civilians, with thousands evacuated and schools closed in border areas.
“Only those families are still here which have concrete bunkers built within or along their homes,” said Muhammad Din, a resident of Chakothi, a village in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir near the de facto border.
India has also continued its crackdown on suspected militants operating in Kashmir, and on Wednesday security forces killed two Jaish militants in a gun battle, Indian police said.
Syed Maqsood, the superintendent of a government hospital in Indian-occupied Kashmir, said that all hospitals in the region had been asked to paint a red cross on their roofs in case of further Pakistani air strikes.