Aerial Dogfights and Battle to Control the Narrative: How Story of India-Pakistan Conflict Has Unfolded So Far
Six press conferences and briefings have been held since Tuesday. Three were held by Pakistan (two addressed by their military spokesperson and one by PM Imran Khan), and three convened by India (two by MEA officials, and one addressed by senior defence officers).
A combination image of Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor and Pakistan DG ISPR Asif Ghafoor.
New Delhi: Aerial dogfights aside, India and Pakistan have been embroiled in another crucial battle – that of scripting the narrative of recent developments for the world to read.
Six press conferences and briefings have been held since Tuesday. Three were held by Pakistan (two press conferences addressed by their military spokesperson and one televised address by Pakistan PM Imran Khan), and three convened by India (two prepared statements read out by MEA officials, and one press conference addressed by senior defence officers).
Here’s a low-down on how the story has unfolded:
Announcing India’s aerial strikes
5:12 am, Feb 26, Pakistan
On the morning of February 26, Pakistan military spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor put this out on his Twitter handle - "Indian Air Force violated Line of Control. Pakistan Air Force immediately scrambled. Indian aircrafts gone back. Details to follow."
The reason for promptly putting out details of India’s action was presumably to pre-empt an Indian press brief and take charge of the narrative.
It was through Ghafoor's tweet first that news of India’s aerial intrusion into Pakistan airspace, which India has officially neither affirmed nor denied, spread like wildfire.
Ghafoor followed this tweet with pictures of the purported blast site where Indian bombs fell, in an effort to show that no damage had been done.
"Indian aircrafts’ intrusion across LOC in Muzafarabad Sector within AJ&K was 3-4 miles. Under forced hasty withdrawal aircrafts released payload which had free fall in open area. No infrastructure got hit, no casualties. Technical details and other important information to follow (sic)," he said in another tweet.
11:30 am, Feb 26, India
Hours later, senior MEA officials read out a prepared statement before the press, saying air force jets had carried out a ‘non-military preemptive action’. Foreign Secretary VK Gokhale said the strikes were carried out on “the biggest terror training camp in Balakot”, which he said was being run by Maulana Yusuf Azhar, the brother-in-law of JeM chief Maulana Masood Azhar.
3:15 pm, Feb 26, Pakistan
This, in turn, was followed by a press conference held by Ghafoor in which he delivered a threat to India: "You have chosen a path of war without knowing the consequence for the peace and stability of the region...I said that we will surprise you. Wait for that surprise."
Announcing Pakistani aerial strikes and capture of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman
11:49 am, Feb 27, Pakistan
On Wednesday morning, Ghafoor put out a tweet claiming that “in response to PAF strikes this morning as released by MoFA, IAF crossed LOC. PAF shot down two Indian aircraft inside Pakistani airspace. One of the aircraft fell inside AJ&K while other fell inside IOK. One Indian pilot arrested by troops on ground while two in the area.”
1:30pm, Feb 27, Pakistan
Ghafoor held a press conference claiming that two Indian pilots had been captured alive from jets shot down by Pakistan. He also said that PAF jets had moved towards India with an aim to “send a message”. As part of Pakistan’s psy-ops, their military released two videos of Wing Commander Varthaman.
3:45 pm, Feb 27, Pakistan
Ghafoor’s press conference was followed by a televised address by Imran Khan, in which he appealed for peace and offered Pakistan government’s help in investigating the Pulwama terror attack and holding a dialogue on terror.
3:00pm, Feb 27, India
Just before Khan’s address was a televised address by MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar who read out a prepared statement saying, "One Pakistan Air Force fighter aircraft was shot down by Indian Air Force. In this engagement, we have lost one MiG 21. The pilot is missing in action. Pakistan claims he is in their custody. We are ascertaining the facts."
Late into the night, India tried to return volley at Pakistan, and indicating a de-escalation of tensions, released a statement informing that a detailed dossier was handed over to Pakistan Acting High Commissioner with specific details of JeM complicity in Pulwama terror attack and the presence of JeM terror camps and its leadership in Pakistan. It also confirmed that IAF Wing Commander Varthaman was in Pakistan’s custody and said that India expected his safe and immediate return.
If Imran Khan was serious about investigating terror on his soil, the statement seemed to suggest, this was his chance.
Release of Wing Commander Varthaman
Earlier on Thursday, Islamabad issued hints that it was willing to release Wing Commander Abhinandan, with its Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi saying Pakistan was willing to consider returning the pilot if it leads to "de-escalation" of tension with India.
4:15 pm, Feb 28, Pakistan
A few hours after news came in that senior officers of our armed services were to hold an ‘integrated services brief’ at 5 pm, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan abruptly announced his country’s decision to release the captive IAF pilot in an address to his country’s parliament. Yet again pre-empting another Indian offensive, a massive diplomatic battle that India may have been preparing to mount on Pakistan in order to secure the release of its Air Force officer.
In another attempt to burnish his credentials as a peacenik, who has repeatedly warned against military escalation, he announced the decision to release the Indian captive by, notably adding, that he was taking the “first step” towards a peace process. Indicating, perhaps to the global audience, that when peace prevails, the ultimate credit for it should go to Pakistan.
7:10 pm, Feb 28, India
In an ‘integrated services brief’ held by representatives of the three armed forces of the country, a senior air force officer claimed Pakistan has announced the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan. “Indian Air Force is happy and looks forward [to his release].”
He also said that as far as India’s aerial strikes on Jaish terror camps were concerned, it would be premature to put any number to casualties. “We have evidence to show that whatever we wanted to do and the targets we wanted to destroy, we have done that,” said a senior Air Force officer.
In the press brief on Feb 26, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale had said claimed that aerial raids by Indian jets had resulted in killing of a "very large number of terrorists, trainers and senior commanders.” Pakistan maintains that Indian aerial strikes had caused no damage.
Senior Indian defence officers also exhibited parts of an F16 wreckage of a Pakistan Air Force fighter that India claimed to have felled in a dogfight on Wednesday. Pakistan claimed that none of its F-16 fighter aircraft were in air when the IAF claimed to have shot one.
The senior officers ‘debunked’ three Pakistani claims:
a) Pakistan had indulged in misinformation by claiming to have in its custody three Indian pilots, while it only had one.
b) Debunking Pakistan’s claim that it only intended to “send a message” and not cause any actual damage, a senior air force officer said that Pakistan intended to target military installations and that its aircraft were unable to cause any significant damage due to swift response by Indian air force fighters.
c) The senior officers held part of an F-16 wreckage of a Pakistan Air Force fighter that IAF said it felled in a dogfight on Wednesday. Pakistan claimed that none of its F-16 fighter aircraft were in air when the IAF claimed to have shot one.
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