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Tensions mount between Pakistan and India after retaliatory manoeuvres by both nations

An Indian Airforce Mi-17 transport chopper crashed today due to technical failure in Budgam district of Jammu and Kashmir, killing two people. Image by Ieshan Wani. Used with permission.

Tensions between India and Pakistan escalated today, February 27, after the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) claimed to have shot down two Indian military jets and captured two pilots.

The action by Pakistan follows a February 26 airstrike by the Indian Air Force (IAF) on a training camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) group in Balakot in Northwestern Pakistan. The strike was itself in retaliation for the suicide bombing of a convoy in Pulwama, a district in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, that killed 40 Indian paramilitary police.

The current situation represents the biggest escalation of tensions between the two South Asian nuclear-armed rivals in over three decades. The aerial attack on Balakot was the first time in five decades that Indian military aircraft have entered Pakistani airspace, and the extent of the casualties and impact has been hotly contested, with Reuters bureaus in the two countries offering differing accounts.

Lines of control

According to reports, the PAF jets were pushed back by Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft patrolling the area, with both sides reportedly losing aircraft in the skirmish.

One of the Pakistani jets reportedly dropped bombs near an Indian army post, an action the Pakistani foreign ministry later defended as “strikes at non-military target, avoiding human loss, to demonstrate right, capability for self-defence”.

India immediately closed five airports near the border of Pakistan, including Srinagar, Jammu and Leh, and suspended civilian traffic, diverting all the flights bound to these airports.

Pakistan also stopped its domestic and international flight operations from Lahore, Multan, Faisalabad, Sialkot and Islamabad airports. The Flightradar24.com image below indicates the state of the airspace above the two nations at around 4:00 PM Pakistan Standard Time:

Deserted Pakistan Airspace at 4PM Pakistan standard time today. Screenshot from FlightRadar24.com

According to reports, residents of the border areas have been instructed to remain inside their homes and not venture outside. The Indian Railways service has issued a security alert across its network.

In the wake of the Pakistan Air Force actions on February 27, Pakistan's prime minister Imran Khan offered to engage in dialogue with India to de-escalate the situation.

“We understand the grief that you have suffered in Pulwama and are ready for a probe and dialogue, Khan said, according to reports. “Let's sit together and settle this with talks,” he added.

With general elections in India just weeks away, however, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who, with his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is battling for re-election amidst high unemployment and a slowdown in the economy, has been trumpeting the success of the strike on Balakot. Speaking at a rally, Modi reiterated that under him India was in safe hands, without specific reference to the February 26 attack.

Modi's aide—and BJP president—Amit Shah, was less circumspect, tweeting that:

Social media explodes

Foreign policy analyst Kabir Taneja expressed the opinion on Facebook that the attack on Balakot was mostly “symbolic in nature”:

Will this end terrorism? No. Will it contain it in long term? Probably not. But a lot more was achieved in signaling and significantly altering the shackles of counter-terror policies than just destroying a campsite on a hilltop.

But social media in both India and Pakistan exploded with memes and jingoism celebrating both the ‘success’ and ‘failure’ of the Balakot attack. While many Indians hailed it as a victory, lauding Indian Air Force (IAF), Pakistani netizens questioned the validity of those claims. Already embattled residents of India-administered Kashmir lamented the continued stress.

Indian journalist Barkha Dutt, who is frequently trolled by right-wingers, came out in favour of the IAF strike on Balakot:

Dutt faced backlash from Pakistani twiterati such as Ammar Rashid, a political activist:

And from Pakistani university professor Dr. Nida Kirmani:

Other rational voices questioned the ‘news studio-based war cries’ and advocated peace. Shah Faesal, former Director of Education in Indian-administered Kashmir raised the question of who would gain from the confict:

Jahanzeb Hussain, editor of Pakistani news site Dawn.com, tweeted:

The former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti lamented the war cries and its impact on Kashmiri citizens:

Another Kashmiri citizen echoed the chief minister:

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