Pakistan shot down two Indian aircraft over its territory Wednesday and launched strikes inside Indian-controlled Kashmir, a day after Indian jets bombed targets in Pakistan for the first time since 1971 in retaliation for a terrorist attack.
The tit-for-tat airstrikes and accompanying aerial dogfight marked the most serious military escalation between the two nuclear-armed rivals in two decades. Both countries claim the Himalayan Kashmir region, which is divided by a militarised "Line of Control."
India confirmed that one of its planes was shot down by Pakistani planes and said a pilot is missing.
Amid the mounting tensions, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed the nation, saying he did not want to see war with India and urging, "Let's settle this with talks." He said his government has offered to help investigate the February 14 Kashmir bombing, which killed 40 Indian security personnel, and warned against Indian aggression.
"Our action was only intended to convey that if you can come into our country, we can do the same," he said, referring to Wednesday's airstrikes. "With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford a miscalculation?"
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said its retaliatory airstrikes were aimed at "nonmilitary targets" to avoid human loss and damage. It said Pakistan has "no intention of escalation, but we are fully prepared to do so if forced."
Pakistan's military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, wrote on Twitter that two Indian fighter jets "crossed into Pakistani territory and were shot down" Wednesday in response to Pakistan's strikes. He said one Indian plane fell in Indian-controlled territory, and the other in a Pakistan-controlled area.
He initially announced that two pilots were in custody though subsequently said the military was only holding one.
The Indian pilot in Pakistani military custody is Wing Commander Abhi Nandan, according to Ghafoor, who posted a photo of the captured pilot on Twitter and said he was being treated "as per norms of military ethics."
Earlier Pakistani television channels showed a video of the Indian pilot in which he is blindfolded and appears to have blood on his face. He gives his name, service number and religion, but declines to provide further details.
India's Foreign Ministry said it "strongly objected to Pakistan's vulgar display of an injured personnel in violation" of Geneva Conventions. India expects "his immediate and safe return."
India confirmed that one MiG-21 fighter jet was shot down in an "aerial engagement" with Pakistani forces on Wednesday morning. The pilot is missing in action, said Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for India's Ministry of External Affairs. He said that one Pakistani fighter jet was also shot down in the encounter.
Kumar said Wednesday's clash began when Pakistan launched airstrikes on military installations on the Indian side of Kashmir. "The Indian Air Force responded instantly," he said. In the wake of the strikes, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held an emergency meeting with top security officials but has not yet made any comment on Wednesday's clash.
Over the last two days, the relationship between India and Pakistan - always tense - has entered uncharted territory. India's airstrike in Pakistan on Tuesday and the aerial dogfight between the two countries on Wednesday were the first such encounters since 1971, when India and Pakistan fought a war.
The capture of at least one Indian pilot will raise tensions further. In 1999, the rivals fought a brief but intense conflict high in the Himalayas. During that clash, known as the Kargil conflict, an Indian fighter pilot named Kambampati Nachiketa was captured by Pakistani forces after his plane crashed. Nachiketa said he was tortured during his eight days of captivity, after which he was released.
Despite official claims about wanting to avoid escalation, a mood of belligerent triumph spread across Pakistani news stations and online Wednesday. War songs were played, commentators praised the Pakistan military, and shouts of "God is greatest" could be heard. Images of an Indian plane with burning debris were broadcast repeatedly.
Pakistani officials also claimed Wednesday afternoon that India had committed "unprovoked cease-fire violations" along the Line of Control on Tuesday, resulting in the deaths of four civilians, three of them women. A Foreign Ministry statement named the four individuals but did not say where or how they died. It called the targeting of civilian areas "deplorable" and said such cease-fire violations could lead to a "strategic miscalculation."
The tension erupted in the wake of the Feb. 14 bombing in the Kashmir Valley. It was the deadliest attack in 30 years of conflict and protests by Kashmiri Muslims, and it was claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Muhammad. Pakistan denied any link to the attack, and Khan pledged to investigate if India presented credible evidence of Pakistani involvement.
On Tuesday, India claimed that its airstrike was aimed at a training camp operated by Jaish-e-Muhammad and killed scores of people there in retaliation for the Kashmir attack. But Pakistan maintained that the Indian bombs fell on a vacant rural area with no loss of life and promised to take journalists to see the site.
Pakistani commentators warned that the situation could rapidly spiral out of control. Some urged both governments to be cautious and avoid further provocation, but many blamed India for the escalation and expressed defiant bravado. The two countries have fought three brief, conventional wars that ended in cease-fires, most recently a high-altitude ground conflict in 1999, shortly after both conducted nuclear tests.
"What we saw today is the beginning, and things could move to war. If that happens, it would be catastrophic," Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, a longtime federal minister, said Wednesday. "Indians have committed an extreme stupidity, and today we have given our response . . . They don't know who they have challenged."
Imad Zafar, a columnist writing in the online Pakistan Tribune, warned that the Indian attack was a "trap" set by Modi, a Hindu nationalist who is running for reelection. "A war between two nuclear-armed states can only bring destruction on both sides. We may destroy each other in a matter of minutes," he wrote, calling for bilateral dialogue. "We don't want war, India. Neither should you."
Some experts said the tit-for-tat nature of the last two days might open a window to de-escalate tensions. India has "talked up the strike on the terror camp," while Pakistan has "captured an Indian pilot and shot down an Indian fighter jet," said Ajai Shukla, a defense analyst and former army officer in Delhi. "Both sides have something they can hold on to."
As tensions mounted on Wednesday, commercial flights were suspended across Pakistan and a swath of northwestern India. For most of the day, flight tracking websites showed no commercial flights in the air in Pakistan and none across most of the Indian states of Punjab, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir. India's Civil Aviation Authority later lifted restrictions on flights.
In Indian-controlled Kashmir, residents braced for the worst. Vikas Bhasin, 61, a shopkeeper in the Poonch region near the Line of Control, said that around 10am, he saw fighter jets that he believed were Pakistani aircraft streaking through the sky. After the aircrafts passed overhead, police drove through the area and made announcements on loudspeakers saying there was no need to panic, Bhasin said.
In Srinagar, the largest city in Indian Kashmir, locals have been on edge ever since the February 14 attack. Over the weekend there were reports of hoarding of fuel and groceries as residents anticipated a possible clash between India and Pakistan. But the closure of the Srinagar airport for much of the day on Wednesday was "serious and unsettling," said Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, 50. "Things seem to be collapsing."