According to government sources, 12 Mirage-2000 fighter jets pounded the camp with 1,000 kg of laser guided-bombs. The IAF response came in the wake of a fidayeen attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama on February 14 that killed 40 soldiers.
The pre-dawn operation, described as "non-military" and "pre-emptive" by the Indian government, struck a five-star resort style camp on a hilltop forest that provided Indian forces with a "sitting duck target" and caught the terrorists in their sleep, sources said.
The only government statement on the unprecedented strike came from foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale, who said the camp was located in Balakot but did not elaborate further. Sources said the reference was to the town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, deep in Pakistani territory. It is about 80 km from the Line of Control and near Abbottabad where Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed in hiding by covert US forces.
Hours after the strike, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the country is in safe hands and he will not let the country down. He, however, did not make a direct reference to the attack or give any details.
Gokhale told the media that the "intelligence-led operation" on the Pakistan-based terror group's biggest training camp in Balakot became "absolutely necessary" as it was planning more suicide attacks in India, after the February 14 attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama in which 40 soldiers were killed. The JeM claimed responsibility for the Pulwama attack.
In a synchronised operation, fighter and other aircraft took off from several air bases in Western and Central commands at about the same time, leaving Pakistani defence officials confused about where they were heading, they said.
A small group of aircraft broke away from the swarm and headed to Balakot. The entire operation, it is learnt, was over in 20 minutes, starting at 3.45 am and ending at 4.05 am. The actual bombing took less than two minutes.
"In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated," Gokhale said, stressing that care was taken to avoid civilian casualties.
The facility at Balakot, located in a thick forest on a hilltop far from civilian presence, was headed by Maulana Yousuf Azhar, alias Ustad Ghouri, the brother-in-law of JeM chief Masood Azhar, he said. The statement did not say if Yousuf Azhar was among those killed.
The JeM has been active in Pakistan for the last two decades and has its headquarters in Bahawalpur in Pakistan's Punjab province, he said in the statement. The organisation is proscribed by the UN and has been responsible for a series of terrorist attacks, including on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 and the Pathankot airbase in January 2016.
News of the strike was welcomed by the entire political spectrum and military experts who had been advocating retribution after the Pulwama attack.
In Islamabad, the narrative was different with officials saying there were no casualties or damages.
In an early morning tweet, Major General Asif Ghafoor, director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the Pakistan Army, said Indian jets intruded from the Muzaffarabad sector. "Facing timely and effective response from Pakistan Air Force released payload in haste while escaping which fell near Balakot. No casualties or damage," Ghafoor said in a tweet.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday directed the nation’s armed forces and people to remain prepared “for all eventualities” after holding an emergency meeting of the National Security Council. A joint session of the Parliament has also been called for Wednesday.
Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi called an "emergency meeting" at the Foreign Office for consultations, sources in Islamabad said.
Pakistan’s NSC also "strongly rejected Indian claim of targeting an alleged terrorist camp near Balakot as well as the claim of heavy casualties" and claimed that Pakistan’s jets had intercepted the IAF planes and forced them to withdraw without causing any damage.
The NSC claimed that payload dropped by Indian fighter jets was not 1,000kg laser-guided bombs and instead fuel tanks to escape faster.
"Once again Indian government has resorted to a self-serving, reckless and fictitious claim," the statement said. "This action has been done for domestic consumption being in election environment, putting regional peace and stability at grave risk," it said.