India said on Thursday it had conducted “surgical strikes” on suspected militants preparing to infiltrate from Pakistan-ruled Kashmir, making its first direct military response to an attack on an army base it blames on Pakistan and raising the risk of escalation.
Pakistan said two of its soldiers had been killed in exchanges of fire and in repulsing an Indian “raid”, but denied India had made any targeted strikes across the de facto frontier that runs through the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir.
The cross-border action inflicted significant casualties, the Indian army’s head of operations told reporters in New Delhi, while senior government officials said Indian soldiers had crossed the border to target militant camps.
The announcement followed through on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s warning that those India held responsible “would not go unpunished” for a Sept 18 attack on its army base at Uri, near the Line of Control, that killed 18 soldiers.
The strikes also raised the possibility of a military escalation between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan that would wreck a 2003 Kashmir ceasefire. India evacuated people from some villagers near the front line as a precautionary measure.
Lt General Ranbir Singh, the Indian army’s director general of military operations (DGMO), said the strikes were launched on Wednesday based on “specific and credible information that some terrorist units had positioned themselves … with an aim to carry out infiltration and terrorist strikes”.
Singh said he had called his Pakistani counterpart to inform him of the operation, which had ended. India later briefed opposition parties, which backed the mission, and ambassadors in New Delhi but stopped short of disclosing operational details.
“It would indicate that this was all pretty well organised,” said one diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because the briefing by Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was confidential.
Pakistan’s military spokesman slammed the Indian account as “totally baseless and completely a lie”, saying the contact between DGMOs only included communication regarding cross-border firing, which was within existing rules of engagement.
“We deny it. There is no such thing on the ground. There is just the incident of the firing last night, which we responded to,” Lt General Asim Bajwa told news channel Geo TV.
Neither side’s accounts could be independently verified.
India’s disclosure of such strikes was unprecedented, said Ajai Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, and sent a message not only to his own people but to the international community.
“India expects global support to launch more focused action against Pakistan,” Sahni told Reuters. “There was tremendous pressure on the Indian prime minister to prove that he is ready to take serious action.”
The border clash also comes at a delicate time for Pakistan, with powerful Army Chief of Staff General Raheel Sharif to retire soon and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif still to decide on a successor.
The Pakistani premier condemned India’s “unprovoked and naked aggression” and called a cabinet meeting on Friday to discuss further steps.
Share markets in India and Pakistan fell. India’s NSE index closed down 1.6 per cent after falling as much 2.1 per cent to its lowest since Aug. 29, while Pakistan’s benchmark 100-share index was down 0.15 percent.
India announced its retaliation at a news conference in New Delhi that was hurriedly called, only to be delayed, as Modi chaired a meeting of his cabinet committee on security.
“The prime minister is clear that this is exactly what we should have done,” a senior government official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
US National Security Adviser Susan Rice spoke with her Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, before news of the Indian cross-border operation broke, the White House said.
Rice discussed deepening collaboration between the United States and India on counter-terrorism and urged Pakistan to combat and delegitimise individuals and entities designated by the United Nations as terrorists.
There were no casualties or damage reported on the Indian side of the frontier. An Indian military source told Reuters that the operation was carried out on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control where there were between five and seven infiltration “launchpads”.
“It was a shallow strike. The operation began at around midnight and it was over before sunrise,” this source, who had been briefed by his superiors on the operation, said. “All our men our back. Significant casualties inflicted. Damage assessment still going on.”
A Pakistani military officer at Chhamb, near the Line of Control, contradicted the Indian version, saying the attack had been repelled. “They ran back, leaving may dead bodies on their side,” this senior officer said.
Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir in full, but govern separate parts, and have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over Kashmir.
Tension between the South Asian rivals has been high since an Indian crackdown on dissent in Kashmir following the killing by security forces of Burhan Wani, a young separatist leader, in July.
They rose further when New Delhi blamed Pakistan for the Uri attack, which inflicted the heaviest toll on the Indian army of any single incident in 14 years.
India, which had already launched a diplomatic drive to isolate Pakistan, said on Wednesday it would boycott a regional summit hosted by Pakistan in November. Bangladesh, Afghanistan and the tiny state of Bhutan quickly followed suit.