ISLAMABAD: India and Pakistan both said they shot down each other's fighter jets over disputed Kashmir on Wednesday (Feb 27), a day after Indian warplanes struck inside Pakistan for the first time since a 1971 war, prompting world powers to urge restraint.
The incident is the latest in a dangerous sequence of events between the two nuclear-armed countries, whose ties have been under intense strain since a Feb 14 suicide bombing in Indian Kashmir that killed 40 troops.
Many of the facts in the latest series of engagements are disputed by the two sides.
According to Major General Asif Ghafoor, a spokesman for the Pakistan armed forces, two Indian jets were shot down on Wednesday after they entered Pakistani airspace. The Indian jets had been responding to Pakistani air strikes on six 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.
He added that two Indian pilots were captured. One of them was injured and taken to hospital.
Both India and Pakistan claim all of Kashmir, but control only parts of it.
Ghafoor said Pakistan carried out the strikes on Wednesday in response to India's air strikes the day before, but that it had taken deliberate action to ensure no casualties were caused.
"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," he told a news conference.
ONE PILOT "MISSING IN ACTION": INDIA
India gave a different account of the incident.
Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for India's foreign ministry, told 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, Kumar said. He added that India lost one of its own planes in the encounter, with the pilot missing.
"The Pakistani aircraft was seen by ground forces falling from the sky on the Pakistan side. In this engagement we have unfortunately lost one MiG 21. The pilot is missing in action. Pakistan has claimed that he is in their custody. We are ascertaining the facts," said Kumar.
Pakistan has denied 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.
The Pakistan government's official Twitter account released a video of what it claimed was one of the Indian pilots who had been shot down.
The man, 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."
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.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday called for talks with India and said he hoped "better sense" would prevail so that both sides could de-escalate the situation.
"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."
AIRPORTS CLOSED, FLIGHTS REROUTED
Several airlines, including Emirates and Qatar Airways, suspended flights to Pakistan on Wednesday after the South Asian nation closed its air space following heightened tensions with neighbouring India.
The Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) tweeted that it "has officially closed its airspace until further notice", while a Pakistani military spokesman said the decision had been taken "due to the environment".
At least five Indian airports were also closed and scores of flights were cancelled, aviation authorities there said on condition of anonymity.
The Hindustan Times quoted operator Jet Airways as saying that flight operations in some airports have been suspended until further notice, as instructed by Delhi air traffic control.
Indian airlines Vistara and Indigo said on Wednesday flights to and from cities in northern India are on hold.
"Due to airspace restrictions, flights to and from Amritsar, Srinagar, Chandigarh and Jammu are currently on hold," Vistara, a joint venture between India's Tata Sons Limited and Singapore Airlines said in a tweet.
CALLS FOR CALM
Earlier on Wednesday, the Indian foreign minister sought to ease the situation by downplaying Tuesday's strike, repeating Indian claims that it had been a pre-emptive attack on JeM as the militant group planned further assaults.
"India does not wish to see further escalation of this situation. India will continue to act with responsibility and restraint," Sushma Swaraj said during talks in China with her counterparts from Beijing and Moscow.
The US, along with China and the European Union, have called for cooler heads to prevail.
"We encourage India and Pakistan to exercise restraint, and avoid escalation at any cost," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said after speaking with his counterparts from both countries.
Pompeo added that he stressed to Pakistan's foreign minister "the priority of de-escalating current tensions by avoiding military action, and the urgency of Pakistan taking meaningful action against terrorist groups operating on its soil."
India had been vague over the exact location of Tuesday's strike, with analysts suggesting it was signalling to Pakistan that it does not want an all-out conflict.
Both sides have said that Indian warplanes penetrated as far as Balakot, a heavily forested region in northwestern Pakistan near the border with Pakistani-administered Kashmir.
Balakot residents told AFP they heard explosions in the night, and that one person received minor injuries while no buildings were destroyed.
An AFP journalist who visited the site where the military and residents said the payload was dropped could see a large crater and trees snapped in half, and three mud houses, one with a collapsed wall, nearby.
While India has consistently accused its neighbour of supporting extremist groups, Pakistan has equally vehemently denied any role in attacks in India and its only Muslim-majority state, Kashmir.
Previously, the US and other members of the international community have acted to defuse tensions.
"If I were Washington, I'd be in overdrive making phone calls and signalling that it wants tensions to be de-escalated now," said Moeed Yusuf, an expert at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.
"The risks of letting this play out are too great."