Indian government today said it expects the “immediate and safe return” of an Indian Air Force pilot captured by Pakistan after an air combat between the two sides for the first time since 1971, which marked the worst escalation between the neighbours in decades.
In a demarche handed over to the Pakistani envoy in the evening, India lodged a strong protest at what it called an “unprovoked act of aggression by Pakistan”, saying its jets had targeted military installations in India a day after India’s air strike to target a terror camp in Balakot.
“India also strongly objects to Pakistan’s vulgar display of an injured personnel of the Indian Air Force in violation of all norms of International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Convention. It was made clear that Pakistan would be well advised to ensure that no harm comes to the Indian defence personnel in its custody,” said New Delhi in its statement.
Pakistan initially claimed it had two Indian pilots, but amended later that “there is only one pilot” and he is being treated “as per norms of military ethics”. In various videos circulated by Pakistani accounts, the pilot was seen blindfolded and wounded, his arms tied behind his back, being interrogated. The videos were quickly taken off as Pakistan faced allegations of violating the Geneva Convention for prisoners. Later, a video showed the pilot sipping tea, saying that “officers of the Pakistani army have looked after me well”.
Pakistan said in a statement that it had carried out “strikes across Line of Control from within Pakistani airspace”. Islamabad said it was “not retaliation” and it had “no intention of escalation”, but a demonstration that it was fully prepared to do so if forced. “That is why we undertook the action with clear warning and in broad daylight,” it said.
In response, the government said its pilot was “missing in action” after shooting down a Pakistani aircraft that was targeting Indian military installations. The Pakistani F-16 aircraft, shot down by the MiG Bison, crashed on Pakistani territory in the Lam Valley area.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, in a televised address, called for dialogue and said: “It was our plan to not cause any collateral damage, and not to cause any casualties. We simply wanted to show capability. Two Indian MiGs crossed Pakistan’s Borders, and we shot them down. I want to now address India and say let sanity prevail.” Better sense should prevail, he said, adding, “We should sit down and talk.”
Amid rising tension, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with the military chiefs, the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, the Defence and Foreign Secretaries and intelligence officials. He called the military chiefs again to his home for discussions.
The Prime Minister was targeted by 21 opposition parties who, in a statement after a meeting, condemned “blatant politicization of the armed forces” and criticized political programmes attended by top BJP leaders amid the deepening crisis.
India had been on high alert amid warnings of retaliation by Islamabad after IAF fighter jets destroyed a terror camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammed in Balakot, around 80 km from the Line of Control, in a pre-dawn strike on Tuesday.
New Delhi said it was a “non-military and pre-emptive” strike based on credible inputs that Jaish was training suicide bombers for more attacks like Pulwama. Over 40 soldiers were killed on February 14 when a Jaish-e-Mohammed suicide bomber attacked a security convoy.