Death toll from India, Nepal, Bangladesh floods jumps to over 300

Flood-affected people receives water purifying tablets from volunteers in Jamalpur, Bangladesh, July 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

By Serajul Quadir and Sudarshan Varadhan

DHAKA/NEW DELHI (Reuters) – The death toll from severe flooding in parts of India, Nepal and Bangladesh rose to more than 300 on Monday, even as heavy rains are starting to ebb and water levels started to recede in some of the worst-affected areas.

Heavy rains and overflowing rivers swamped vast swathes of eastern India more than a week ago, and officials on Monday said so far 102 people have died in Bihar state, 35 more than what the state government had estimated on Thursday.

Torrential rains in Bangladesh killed more than 47 people in the last two weeks and at least 120 are missing and feared dead following severe floods and landslides in mostly mountainous Nepal, authorities from the two countries said.

A flood-affected woman wades through flooded area in Jamalpur, Bangladesh July 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

A flood-affected woman wades through flooded area in Jamalpur, Bangladesh July 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Parts of Pakistan have also been flooded.

In Bangladesh, at least 700,000 people have been displaced.

Deaths due to flooding in the region more than doubled in the last five days.

At least five districts in central Bangladesh are at the risk of being flooded, as water levels of two rivers are still rising, an official at the Bangladesh Water Development Board told Reuters.

Authorities are struggling to deliver relief supplies to marooned people.

“We have enough relief materials but the main problem is to reach out to the people,” Foyez Ahmed, deputy commissioner of Bangladesh’s Bogra district, said. “We don’t have adequate transport facilities to move to the areas that are deep underwater.”

In India’s tea-growing state of Assam, close to the border of Bangladesh, severe flooding has displaced millions of people and killed more than 60, officials have said.

Separately, at least 32 people were killed on Sunday in lightning strikes in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state in the north.

India’s weather office on Monday forecast “extremely heavy” rain in four of the 14 districts of the southern state of Kerala.

Kerala last year faced its worst floods in about a century, with heavy rain and landslides killing nearly 500 people, destroying houses and wiping out farmlands.

Monsoon rains, which deliver 75% of India’s annual rain, have not been evenly distributed.

The Himalayan region has received substantially more rain than some of the areas in the plains, where rainfall deficiency has widened to 60%, according to the state-run India Meteorological Department.

(Writing by Sudarshan Varadhan; Editing by Mayank Bhardwaj & Kim Coghill)

Death row Christian woman has left Pakistan, lawyer says

FILE PHOTO: Governor of the Punjab Province Salman Taseer is reflected as he speaks to the media after meeting with Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy, at a jail in Sheikhupura, located in Pakistan's Punjab Province November 20, 2010. REUTERS/Asad Karim/File Photo

By Saad Sayeed

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – A Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row falsely charged with blasphemy has left the country, her lawyer and media said on Wednesday, more than six months after she was acquitted by Pakistan’s top court.

Pakistani and Canadian officials have not officially commented on Asia Bibi’s reported departure, perhaps due to the sensitive nature of her case.

Bibi’s release in October sparked rioting by hardline Islamists, who rejected the Supreme Court’s verdict and warned Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government that she must not be allowed to leave the country.

They also called for Bibi, who has been staying at an undisclosed location under tight security, to be killed.

“I have inquired within available channels, and according to them she has left for Canada,” Bibi’s lawyer, Saif Ul Malook, told Reuters.

Pakistani TV channels Geo and ARY, citing unidentified sources, also reported Bibi had left the country.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment. A Canadian government spokeswoman said in an emailed statement: “Global Affairs Canada has no comment.”

In November, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country was in talks with Pakistan about helping Bibi, whose family are believed to be outside Pakistan. She is widely expected to seek asylum and diplomats say she will have no problems.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court in January upheld its earlier verdict to free Bibi, but Pakistani officials have worried that her sudden departure could trigger further riots.

Islamists have criticized the government and the military for caving in to what they call pressure from the Western world.

Bibi, a farm worker and a mother of four, was convicted in 2010 of making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors working in the fields with her objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

Her case has outraged Christians worldwide and has been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help her were assassinated, including Punjab province governor Salman Taseer, shot by his own bodyguard.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was “fantastic news that Asia Bibi appears to have left Pakistan safely”.

Hunt, who is due to discuss persecution of Christians with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, head of the Church of England, tweeted that Bibi’s freedom “shows that with concerted effort the right thing can happen”.

(Additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Deadly encounters: the night the Indian army arrived in a village in south Kashmir

Bilal Ahmad Naikoo, a civilian, displays a photo of his brother Hilal with Rashid Bhai, a Pakistani national, both members of Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), who were killed in a gun battle with Indian army in Pinglan village in south Kashmir's Pulwama district March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

By Fayaz Bukhari and Alasdair Pal

PINGLAN, India/SRINAGAR (Reuters) – Hundreds of Indian soldiers descended on the picturesque village of Pinglan, which is surrounded by south Kashmir’s apple and apricot orchards, just before midnight on February 17.

By the time they left 18 hours later, one civilian, three armed militants, and five members of the security forces were dead, a row of houses was reduced to rubble, an unexploded missile had been planted in a rice paddy, and more than 120 villagers had sought treatment for exposure to tear gas, alleged beatings, and in some cases mental trauma.

Reuters spent two days in Pinglan, which has a population of about 6,400, about a month after the crackdown to piece together what happened during those hours.

Interviews with more than 60 eyewitnesses indicate that soldiers forced at least four villagers to act as human shields. That meant sending them first into a building where armed militants might be hiding, often using a phone to take video could be viewed by nearby soldiers.

Human rights lawyers say such tactics – which are meant to deter militants from firing on soldiers carrying out the raids – are highly questionable and could even be a war crime under international law.

But they would not be illegal under Indian law.

“(The) Indian army has never used civilians as human-shields,” said military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Mohit Vaishnava, in response to requests for comment.

However, he said that during encounters, local people are sometimes asked to mediate between the army and militants.

The armed insurgency in the Indian-ruled portion of Kashmir is one of the world’s longest-running. Nearly 50,000 have died as a result of the conflict in the last three decades, according to official figures.

The number of active militants had dwindled to a few dozen a few years ago. But after a 2016 uprising following the killing of a militant leader, growing numbers of young men, predominantly Kashmiris, are joining their ranks. India blames its arch-rival Pakistan for funding these groups, a claim Islamabad denies.

PARADISE LOST

Both countries claim Kashmir in full but rule it in part, and have fought three wars – two over the territory. Now nuclear powers, they came close to another war when a suicide car bomber, a local Kashmiri, killed 40 Indian paramilitary police on February 14 on a highway near Pinglan. The Pakistan-based Islamist militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility.

That attack sparked a huge crackdown by Indian forces as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave troops a “free hand” to respond.

Since the suicide attack, hundreds of separatists have been arrested, and dozens of militants and civilians killed in what the authorities term “encounters”.

On February 17, from about 11:30 p.m., three days after the suicide attack, security forces cordoned off all the roads leading into Pinglan and began going house-to-house.

An army informant in the village had heard of the presence of militants, according to an army officer Reuters interviewed who is familiar with some operational details of the encounter.

Fifteen-year-old Muninah Amin said the army knocked on her door, telling her family their house was to be searched.

When Amin protested, she said an army major told her to be quiet.

“You should become a sarpanch (village head), you talk so much,” he said, pointing his gun at her.

Troops from the 55th Battalion of the Rashtriya Rifles demanded her father, Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat, come out to help them, Amin said. They were surrounding a separate small building on the family’s property and needed Bhat to search it for them.

Gunfire from an unknown source strafed their house, breaking upstairs windows, and the remaining family members hid on the ground floor. By the time they were moved by the army into the house of a neighbor, Bhat was dead, a soldier informed them.

“They only told us he died in the crossfire,” said Amin, whose account of the evening was corroborated by her mother, Nusrat.

HOSTILE TO INDIA

The army is yet to provide any further information on how he died, Amin said.

“We asked for information but they did not give it to us,” she said. “They hid what happened.”

Vaishnava said the army did all it could to minimize civilian casualties, but the militants often hid in populated areas in order to increase the civilian death toll.

Residents interviewed in Pinglan were almost all openly hostile to India and its soldiers.

Still, many people said the village had not seen armed confrontation between militants and troops for decades. 

Amin’s account of Bhat being taken by the army to search a building was consistent with testimony of three other people, all of whom told Reuters they were forced to perform similar tasks.

A teenager, who said he was 17 and gave his name as Jibran, said he was one of a dozen mainly young men, who were taken from their homes to an armored personnel carrier where they were held and then sent out to search houses. His account was corroborated by his grandfather and aunt.

“They gave me a shield and they said you have to move forward to search the houses,” he said. “I felt in danger.”

Bhat’s brother, Shafqat Ahmad Bhat, said he was also held by the army and sent to search a house and film it on a mobile phone near the end of the encounter.

Shafqat, along with half a dozen other villagers, said they were beaten by troops using rifle butts, sticks and other weapons.

“They put a stone in my mouth to keep me quiet because I was screaming so much,” Shafqat said.

While many of the injuries sustained by those who said they had been attacked were minor, Bhat family neighbor Shahzada Akhtar said she was repeatedly struck on the face with a shoe by a soldier and needed “medical treatment.”

Her account was corroborated by Rayees Ul-Hamid, a medical officer at Pinglan’s health center.

Vaishnava said the allegations of disproportionate use of force by the army were “baseless, bereft of evidence and likely to have been made by terrorised people under duress from the perpetrators.”

THE MILITANT

Of the three militants killed in the encounter, two were Pakistani. The other, Hilal Ahmad Naikoo, was a local. He ran a successful medical laboratory and was well-liked in the village, according to interviews with his family and others.

His brother, Bilal, said Hilal joined JeM after the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in Jammu, Kashmir state in January 2018. Six people, including two policemen, are standing trial for the rape and murder while two other policemen have been accused of destroying evidence.

In October, Hilal returned for a visit home carrying a gun and accompanied by Rashid Bhai, a Pakistani believed by security forces to be one of Jaish’s top commanders, said Bilal. Bhai was also killed in the Pinglan encounter, security forces said.

Bilal was in the village that night, and heard the sound of gunfire from his house. But the first he knew of Hilal’s involvement was when his death was announced on TV.

Hilal and Bhat were buried next to each other in an ancient village graveyard that is now reserved for those killed by Indian troops. The JeM flag is draped over the railings.

Bilal Ahmad Naikoo, a civilian, stands by the grave of his brother Hilal, a separatist militant, and Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat, a civilian, who were both killed in a gun battle with Indian army in Pinglan village in south Kashmir's Pulwama district March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

Bilal Ahmad Naikoo, a civilian, stands by the grave of his brother Hilal, a separatist militant, and Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat, a civilian, who were both killed in a gun battle with Indian army in Pinglan village in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

The wider hostility of the villagers to Indian forces was on display the morning after their arrival in Pinglan. Dozens of people threw stones at security services, eyewitnesses said. 

Troops responded with a volley of tear gas and stun grenades.

“The air was thick with smoke, it was like a fog,” said Abdul Rahman, sifting through discarded gas shells that litter the side of the road near his house.

At 3 pm, soldiers moved a group of local journalists who had managed to enter the encounter site to the edge of the village.

Shortly after, several eyewitnesses said they saw plumes of smoke coming from the courtyard where most of the fighting had taken place.

“The Indian forces destroyed our house without any reason,” Mushtaq Ahmed, a shopkeeper, told Reuters, standing among heaps of rubble and charred timber where his house used to stand.

“No house was deliberately set on fire by security forces,” said Vaishnava, the military spokesman, blaming it on the militants.

THE AFTERMATH

The encounter was over and the soldiers were starting to move out of the village, but at about 6 p.m. troops had one last job for Shafqat Ahmad Bhat.

“They asked me to pick up an unexploded shell, dig a hole in the ground and bury it there,” he said.

He led Reuters to a nearby rice paddy and pointed to a waterlogged crater where he said he buried the unexploded mortar used in the army operation.

After visiting the site on March 21, a Reuters journalist told the authorities about the mortar. A day later, bomb disposal experts from the army and police got rid of the rocket in a controlled explosion, a local official and witnesses said.

“There was a huge explosion. The earth shook,” said Bilal Ahmed, an eyewitness.

Vaishnava denied the soldiers had forced a civilian to bury unexploded ordnance.

A fragile peace has returned to the village. The first apricot blossom of the season is beginning to bloom, while mynah birds chirp overhead.

But the trauma from the encounter has lingered.

Wuli Mohammed Naik, the grandfather of Jibran, the boy made to search houses, was one of many who said he was afraid to go out after dark.

“A man who is bitten by a snake is afraid of rope,” he said.

(Reporting by Fayaz Bukhari in Pinglan and Alasdair Pal in Srinagar; Editing by Martin Howell and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

India cites ‘active mobile phones’ to back air strike casualty claim

FILE PHOTO: Pakistan army soldier walks near to the crater where Indian military aircrafts released payload in Jaba village, Balakot, Pakistan February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Asif Shahzad

By Krishna N. Das

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – An Indian government surveillance agency had detected 300 active mobile phones at a suspected militant camp in Pakistan that India says its fighter jets bombed last week, the interior minister said on Tuesday, seeking to quell rising doubts about the success of the operation.

“Some people are asking how many were killed,” Rajnath Singh said at an election rally. “You are seeking answers from us! India’s respected and authentic NTRO surveillance system has said that before Indian pilots dropped the bombs, 300 mobile phones were active there. There’s no need to tell you how many were killed.”

Singh was referring to the National Technical Research Organisation that is under direct control of the prime minister’s office.

Indian opposition leaders are increasingly raising doubts about the government’s official claims that a “very large number” of members of an Islamist militant group were killed in the strike by Indian warplanes early on Feb. 26. The government has rejected the demand for proof.

Pakistan has said the Indian bombs hit a largely empty hillside near the northeastern town of Balakot without hurting anyone.

A top Indian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said last week that at least 300 suspected militants were killed in the air strike, while the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amit Shah, put the figure at more than 250.

(Reporting by Krishna N. Das)

Factbox: So far apart – India and Pakistan engage in war of claim, counter-claim

FILE PHOTO: People hold national flags and placards as they celebrate after Indian authorities said their jets conducted airstrikes on militant camps in Pakistani territory, in New Delhi, India, February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

By Devjyot Ghoshal

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – An air strike by Indian warplanes inside Pakistan last week, and a subsequent retaliatory attack by the Pakistani air force, pushed the nuclear-armed neighbors to the brink of another war, but also triggered a fight over the truth about events.

Below is a look at claims and counter claims from both sides. They disagree on most aspects.

PULWAMA ATTACK

The escalation in tension came after a suicide car bombing killed 40 paramilitary troops in Pulwama in Indian-administered Kashmir, a mountainous region also claimed by Pakistan, on Feb. 14.

India blames Pakistan for the attack, which was claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), and says it has provided Pakistan with proof.

India’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Feb. 27 that a dossier was handed over to Pakistan with “specific details of JeM complicity in Pulwama terror attack and the presence of JeM terror camps and its leadership in Pakistan”.

Pakistan has denied the accusation, saying it had nothing to do with the Pulwama bombing, which came right before a high-profile visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Islamabad on Feb. 17.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan told parliament on Feb. 28: “We had such an important visit of the Saudi crown prince coming up. We knew that they would invest, there were contracts. Which country would sabotage such an important event by conducting a terror attack?”

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Jamiat Talaba Islam (JTI), student wing of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), chant slogans as they celebrate, after Pakistan shot down two Indian military aircrafts, in Lahore, Pakistan February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Jamiat Talaba Islam (JTI), student wing of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), chant slogans as they celebrate, after Pakistan shot down two Indian military aircrafts, in Lahore, Pakistan February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza/File Photo

AIR STRIKE IMPACT

India said its warplanes struck a JeM training camp near the Pakistani town of Balakot in the early hours of Feb. 26, acting on intelligence that the militant group was planning another suicide attack.

“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,” India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said in a briefing after the air strike. Fidayeen is a term used to describe Islamist militants willing to fight to the death.

Pakistan acknowledged that Indian jets had crossed into its territory, but denied they had hit anything substantial. Under forced hasty withdrawal, Indian aircraft “released payload which had free fall in open area. No infrastructure got hit, no casualties”, the Pakistan military spokesman, Major General Asif Ghafoor, said in a tweet.

In New Delhi, a senior government official told reporters that at least 300 militants had been killed, although India’s defense forces have since said they are unable to provide any detail on the number of casualties.

“We hit our target,” the chief of the Indian air force (IAF), B.S. Dhanoa, said on Monday. “The air force doesn’t calculate casualty numbers, the government does that.”

F-16 INVOLVEMENT

On Feb. 27, Pakistan said its air force had locked on to six targets in Indian-administered Kashmir in retaliation for the Indian air strikes the day before. It said it did this to show it could strike key targets but said its pilots deliberately dropped their bombs in open country without causing damage. It said its aircraft did not enter Indian airspace.

Pakistan said it had downed two Indian jets, one of which came down in Pakistani-held territory and the other on the Indian side of the border. It said it had captured two Indian air force pilots. Later, it clarified to say it had only one Indian pilot in its custody. He was later handed over to India.

India said it had detected a “large package” of Pakistan air force jets coming towards Indian territory, and sent up its own fighter aircraft to intercept them.

In the ensuing engagement, India lost a MiG-21 Bison, the IAF said, adding it also shot down a U.S.-built F-16 jet. India denies that it lost a second jet.

On Feb. 28, Indian defense officials displayed what they said were parts of an AMRAAM air-to-air missile that is carried only on the F-16s in the Pakistani air force.

India’s foreign ministry said that there was a “violation of the Indian air space by Pakistan air force and targeting of Indian military posts”.

Pakistan’s military has denied it used F-16s in the attack on India and says it has not lost any of its aircraft.

CEASEFIRE VIOLATIONS

In the past week, India and Pakistan have accused each other of regularly violating a ceasefire agreement along the 740-km (460-mile) Line of Control (LoC), which serves as a de-facto border between the two countries in the disputed Kashmir region.

For example, last Thursday, India said Pakistan had begun firing on at least three occasions, violating the ceasefire, killing one civilian on the Indian side.

Pakistani authorities said the ceasefire violations were by India, and four civilians had been killed in Pakistan in what they called a “deliberate” attack by Indian forces.

(Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal; Additional reporting by James Mackenzie in ISLAMABAD; Edited by Martin Howell, Robert Birsel)

Saudi Arabia strips Osama bin Laden’s son of citizenship; U.S. offers million dollar reward

A photograph circulated by the U.S. State Department’s Twitter account to announce a $1 million USD reward for al Qaeda key leader Hamza bin Laden, son of Osama bin Laden, is seen March 1, 2019. State Department/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has stripped citizenship from Hamza bin Laden, the son of slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the interior ministry said in a statement published by the official gazette.

The U.S. State Department said on Thursday it was offering a reward of up to $1 million for information leading “to the identification or location in any country” of Hamza, calling him a key al Qaeda leader.

Hamza, believed to be about 30 years old, was at his father’s side in Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks and spent time with him in Pakistan after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan pushed much of al Qaeda&rsqu’s senior leadership there, according to the Brookings Institution.

Introduced by the organization’s new chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in an audio message in 2015, Hamza provides a younger voice for the group whose aging leaders have struggled to inspire militants around the world galvanized by Islamic State, analysts say.

He has called for acts of terrorism in Western capitals and threatened to take revenge against the United States for his father’s killing, the State Department said in 2017 when it designated him as a global terrorist.

He also threatened to target Americans abroad and urged Saudi tribes to unite with Yemen’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to fight against Saudi Arabia, it said.

Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces who raided his compound in Pakistan in 2011. Hamza was thought to be under house arrest in Iran at the time, and documents recovered from the compound indicated that aides had been trying to reunite him with his father.

The Saudi decision to strip him of his citizenship was made by a royal order in November, according to a statement published in the Um al-Qura official journal.

(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Andrew Heavens)

India welcomes Pakistan’s return of captured pilot, as powers urge de-escalation

Demonstrators hold placards and shout slogans during a protest demanding the release of an Indian Air Force pilot after he was captured by Pakistan, in Kolkata, India, February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

By Alasdair Pal and James Mackenzie

NEW DELHI/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Indian military officials said on Thursday they welcomed Pakistan’s planned return of a captured pilot, but refused to confirm they would de-escalate a conflict between the two nuclear powers.

The pilot, identified as Wing Commander Abhinandan, became the human face of the flare-up over the contested region of Kashmir following the release of videos showing him being captured and later held in custody.

“We are happy our pilot is being released,” said Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor, at a joint news conference of India’s three armed forces on Thursday evening.

He did not say when asked by reporters if India considered the return a de-escalation in the conflict.

Indian pilot Wing Commander Abhi Nandan captured by Pakistan is seen in this handout photo released February 27, 2019. Inter Service Public Relation (ISPR) Handout via REUTERS

Indian pilot Wing Commander Abhi Nandan captured by Pakistan is seen in this handout photo released February 27, 2019. Inter Service Public Relation (ISPR) Handout via REUTERS

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said the pilot would be released on Friday, to the relief of many Indians, even as his military reported that four Pakistani civilians had been killed by India firing across the disputed border in Kashmir.

“As a peace gesture we will be releasing him tomorrow,” Khan told Pakistan’s parliament on Thursday afternoon. Lawmakers thumped their desks in response.

“We will celebrate his release tomorrow,” said Vinay Bhardwaj, 34, a plumber in Nawshera, a border town in Indian-controlled Kashmir. “People are very happy about that here.”

The United States, China, European Union and other powers have urged restraint from the two nations, as tensions escalated following a suicide car bombing that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Feb. 14.

The Muslim-majority Himalayan region has been at the heart of more than 70 years of animosity, since the partition of the British colony of India into the separate countries of Muslim Pakistan and majority Hindu India.

It is divided between India, which rules the Kashmir Valley and the Hindu-dominated region around Jammu city, Pakistan, which controls a wedge of territory in the west, and China, which holds a thinly populated high-altitude area in the north.

On Tuesday, India said it hit a training camp for a Pakistan-based group who claimed responsibility for the suicide attack, and a senior government source told reporters that 300 militants had been killed.

Pakistan denies this, saying the attack was a failure and no one died, with bombs dropped on a largely empty hillside. It denies any militant camp was in the area. Local people said they had seen no sign of major casualties or significant damage, with only one man known to have been slightly hurt by the bombs.

Asked about the damage caused by Indian warplanes in Tuesday’s air strike, Kapoor said it was premature to provide details about casualties. But they said they had “credible” evidence of the damage inflicted on the camp by the air strikes.

“Whatever we intended to destroy, we did,” he said.

A train loaded with Indian army trucks and artillery guns is parked at a railway station on the outskirts of Jammu February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

A train loaded with Indian army trucks and artillery guns is parked at a railway station on the outskirts of Jammu February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

INTERNATIONAL CONCERN

Tuesday’s escalation marked the latest deterioration in relations between the two countries. As recently as November, Khan had spoken of “mending ties” with India.

Khan’s decision to release the pilot came after several countries offered diplomatic assistance to mediate between two countries, that have gone to war three times since their independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said after Khan’s announcement that he had spoken to the leaders of both countries and urged them to avoid “any action that would escalate and greatly increase risk”.

Earlier, U.S. President Trump said he expected “reasonably decent news” regarding the conflict between India and Pakistan, adding that the United States was trying to mediate.

“They have been going at it and we have been involved in trying to have them stop,” Trump said in Hanoi, where he was attending a summit with North Korea’s leader.

“We have been in the middle trying to help them both out.”

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also offered to facilitate talks between the two sides.

Khan’s office said the prime minister had spoken to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and the United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan and that both had appreciated his willingness to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Khan has already called for talks with India to prevent the risk of a “miscalculation” between their militaries.

Earlier on Thursday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who faces a general election in a matter of months, told a rally of supporters that India would unite against its enemies.

“The world is observing our collective will. It is necessary that we shouldn’t do anything that allows our enemy to raise a finger at us,” he said, in his first remarks since the downing of planes on Wednesday.

The Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, spoke by telephone with Pakistan’s foreign minister and expressed “deep concern”.

The United States, Britain and France proposed the United Nations Security Council blacklist Masood Azhar, the head of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad, the group that claimed responsibility for the Feb. 14 attack. China is likely to be oppose the move.

As a precaution amid the increased military activity, Pakistan has shut its airspace, forcing commercial airlines to reroute. Thai Airways International announced on Thursday that it had canceled flights to Pakistan and Europe, which left thousands of passengers stranded in Bangkok.

FIRING CONTINUES

Both countries said they downed enemy jets on Wednesday, though each disputed the claims of the other side, and each accused the other of breaching cease fire agreements.

Indian and Pakistani troops traded fire along the contested border in Kashmir on at least three occasions on Thursday, with the firing instigated by Pakistan every time, according to New Delhi. Pakistan said the ceasefire violations were by India.

Pakistan’s military said four civilians had been killed and two wounded in what it called a “deliberate” attack by India during the past 48 hours. A civilian on the Indian side of the border was killed in the firing on Thursday, an Indian official said.

Troops from India and Pakistan first exchanged fire on Thursday in the Poonch district for over an hour at 6 a.m., according to a statement from the Indian army. Pakistan said the firing began overnight.

Aijaz Ahmad, a resident in the Indian-controlled portion of the district, said he could hear heavy firing on Thursday afternoon.

“Loud sounds of mortar shells are being heard from a distance. Shops … are open but there is a lot of tension,” he said.

India is building more than 14,000 bunkers for families in Jammu and Kashmir state living close to the border, hoping to keep them safe near their homes rather than evacuate them.

With a general election due in India by May, a surge in nationalism from any conflict with Pakistan could become a key factor, potentially favoring Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“This has brought a pro-Modi wave all through the country,” B.S. Yeddyurappa, a BJP leader in the southern state of Karnataka, told reporters. “The effect of this will be seen in the elections.”

(This story has been refiled to fix typo in headline, no change to text)

(Reporting by Alasdair Pal, James Mackenzie, Fayaz Bukhari, Drazen Jorgic, Aditya Kalra, Krishna Das, Asif Shahzad, Saad Sayeed, Sanjeev Miglani, Neha Dasgupta and Abu Arqam Naqash; additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Michelle Nicholls; Editing by Michael Perry, Simon Cameron-Moore and Alison Williams)

India, Pakistan claim to down each other’s jets as Kashmir conflict heats up

India's Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers patrol along the fenced border with Pakistan in Ranbir Singh Pura sector near Jammu February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

By James Mackenzie and Alasdair Pal

ISLAMABAD/NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India and Pakistan both said they shot down each other’s fighter jets on Wednesday, with Pakistan capturing an Indian pilot a day after Indian warplanes struck inside Pakistan for the first time since a 1971 war, prompting world powers to urge restraint.

Both countries have ordered air strikes over the last two days, the first time in history that two nuclear-armed powers have done so, while ground forces have exchanged fire in more than a dozen locations.

Tension has been running high since a suicide car bombing by Pakistan-based militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police on Feb. 14, but the risk of conflict rose dramatically on Tuesday when India launched an air strike on what it said was a militant training base.

A senior Indian government source said that 300 militants were killed in Tuesday’s strike. Pakistan says no one was killed.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called for talks with India and hoped “better sense” would prevail so that both sides could de-escalate.

“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.”

The Pakistan government’s official Twitter account released a video of what it claimed was an Indian pilot who had been shot down.

The man, whom Pakistan has named as Wing Commander Abhi Nandan, 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.”

A statement from India’s foreign ministry said the pilot’s treatment was a “vulgar display of an injured personnel of the Indian Air Force in violation of all norms of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention”, ordering his immediate release. India has not yet named the pilot.

In a second video circulating on social media, a screenshot of which was shared by the same Pakistan government account, the pilot was seen sipping tea while praising his treatment by the Pakistani military.

Reuters could not independently verify the second video’s authenticity.

POLITICAL PRESSURE

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.

The latest escalation marks a sudden turnaround in relations between the two countries, that both claim Kashmir in full but rule in part. As recently as November, Pakistan’s Khan spoke of “mending ties” with India.

The conflict also comes at a critical time for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who faces a general election in a matter of months.

Modi’s decision to order air strikes could benefit him politically, according to analysts and pollsters, but he was accused on Wednesday by opposition parties of capitalizing on conflict.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi criticized the “blatant politicization of the sacrifices made by our armed forces”, in a joint statement by 21 opposition parties, the first time they have broken ranks with the government over the issue.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke separately with the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan and urged them to avoid “further military activity” following Tuesday’s air strike.

“I expressed to both ministers that we encourage India and Pakistan to exercise restraint, and avoid escalation at any cost,” Pompeo said in a statement on Wednesday.

“I also encouraged both ministers to prioritize direct communication and avoid further military activity,” he said.

Both China and the European Union have also called for restraint.

AERIAL BATTLE

Many of the facts in the latest series of engagements are disputed by the two sides.

Major General Asif Ghafoor, spokesman for the Pakistan armed forces, said two Indian jets had been shot down after they entered Pakistani airspace while responding to a Pakistani aerial mission on 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 the Pakistani aircraft had carried out the strikes in response to India’s air strike the day before but had taken deliberate action to ensure no casualties were caused.

    The Pakistani jets had locked on to six targets, in a demonstration of their capacity to hit strategic installations, but deliberately fired into open spaces where there would be no casualties.

“This was not a retaliation in a 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,” Ghafoor told a news conference.

One of the aircraft fell on India’s side of Kashmir, while the second came down in Pakistani-held territory with two pilots captured, he added.

Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for India’s foreign ministry, gave a different account, telling 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, and that it had lost one of its own planes, not two, with the pilot “missing in action”, Kumar added.

“Pakistan has claimed that he is in their custody. We are ascertaining the facts,” Kumar said.

Pakistan denies 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.

Pakistan initially said that two Indian pilots had been captured, before clarifying it only had one in its custody.

The Indian air force has ordered Kashmir’s main airport in Srinagar along with at least three others in neighboring states to close, an official said.

Pakistan shut its airspace, with commercial flights in the country canceled. Flights from the Middle East and India were also affected.

In a separate incident, police officials in Indian-occupied Kashmir said that four passengers and a civilian had died after an Indian aircraft crashed in Kashmir. The craft was initially reported by officials to be a plane, but a partial tail number from the craft seen by a Reuters witness showed it to be an Mi17 military helicopter.

The cause of the crash was unknown.

CIVILIAN FRIGHT

The aerial engagement followed overnight artillery fire by both sides. Pakistan used heavy caliber weapons in 12 to 15 places along the Line of Control, a spokesman for the Indian defense forces said on Wednesday.

“The Indian Army retaliated for effect and our focused fire resulted in severe destruction to five posts and number of casualties,” the spokesman said.

Five Indian soldiers suffered minor wounds in the shelling that ended on Wednesday morning, he added.

“So far there are no (civilian) casualties but there is panic among people,” said Rahul Yadav, the deputy commissioner of the Poonch district on the Indian side where some of the shelling took place.

“We have an evacuation plan in place and if need arises we will evacuate people to safer areas,” he said.

Officials on the Pakistani side said at least four people had been killed and seven wounded, including civilians, with thousands evacuated and schools closed in border areas.

“Only those families are still here which have concrete bunkers built within or along their homes,” said Muhammad Din, a resident of Chakothi, a village in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir near the de facto border.

India has also continued its crackdown on suspected militants operating in Kashmir, and on Wednesday security forces killed two Jaish militants in a gun battle, Indian police said.

Syed Maqsood, the superintendent of a government hospital in Indian-occupied Kashmir, said that all hospitals in the region had been asked to paint a red cross on their roofs in case of further Pakistani air strikes.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie and Alasdair Pal; Additional reporting by Fayaz Bukhari, Devjyot Ghoshal, Aditi Shah, Aditya Kalra, Drazen Jorgic, Rupam Jain, Abu Arqam Naqash, Eric Beech and Praveen Menon; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)

India launches air strike inside Pakistan; Islamabad denies militant camp hit

India's Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale speaks during a media briefing in New Delhi, India, February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

By Abu Arqam Naqash and Sanjeev Miglani

BALAKOT, Pakistan/NEW DELHI (Reuters) –

Pakistan said it would respond at a time and place of its choice, with a military spokesman even India said its warplanes killed “a very large number” of fighters when they struck a militant training camp inside Pakistan on Tuesday, raising the risk of conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbors, although Pakistan officials denied there had been casualties. alluding to its nuclear arsenal, highlighting the escalation in hostile rhetoric from both two sides since a suicide bombing in Kashmir this month.

The spokesman said a command and control authority meeting, which decides over the use of nuclear weapons, had been convened for Wednesday, adding: “You all know what that means.”

The air strike near Balakot, a town 50 km (30 miles) from the frontier, was the deepest cross-border raid launched by India since the last of its three wars with Pakistan in 1971 but there were competing claims about the damage it caused.

The Indian government, facing an election in the coming months, said the air strikes hit a training camp belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the group that claimed the suicide car bomb attack that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Kashmir on Feb. 14.

Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said “a very large number” of militants were killed in the strikes in northeast Pakistan.

“The existence of such training facilities, capable of training hundreds of jihadis, could not have functioned without the knowledge of the Pakistani authorities,” Gokhale said. Pakistan denies harboring JeM.

A senior Indian government source said that 300 militants had been killed in the strikes and that the warplanes had ventured as far as 80 km (50 miles) inside Pakistan. But no evidence was provided to back up the claims of casualties.

The government said the action was ordered as India said it had intelligence that Jaish was planning more attacks.

Pakistani officials dismissed the Indian claims, saying the Indian aircraft had dropped their bombs in a wooded area, causing no damage or casualties.

Villagers near the town of Balakot were shaken from their sleep by the air strikes. They said only one person was wounded in the attack and they knew of no fatalities.

“We saw fallen trees and one damaged house, and four craters where the bombs had fallen,” said Mohammad Ajmal, a 25-year-old who visited the site.

A resident, who did not want to give his name, said there was a nearby madrasa Islamic college run by Jaish, though most villagers were guarded in talking about any militant neighbors.

JeM is a primarily anti-India group that forged ties with al Qaeda and has been on a U.N. terrorist list since 2001. In December 2001, Jaish fighters, along with members of another Pakistan-based militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, attacked India’s parliament, which almost led to a fourth war.

HOSPITALS ON ALERT

There has been mounting impatience in India to avenge the Feb. 14 attack, which was the most deadly seen in Kashmir during an insurgency that has last three decades, and as news of the raid broke, celebrations erupted across the country.

“I want to assure you our country is in safe hands,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said to cheers at a rally in western India hours after the raid. “I won’t let the country down.”

Pakistan’s top civilian and military leaders rejected India’s comments that it had struck a “terrorist camp” inside Pakistan, warning that they would retaliate.

Pakistan’s National Security Committee (NSC), comprising top officials including Prime Minister Imran Khan and army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, said Khan would “engage with global leadership to expose irresponsible Indian policy”. It also warned that “Pakistan shall respond at the time and place of its choosing” to Indian aggression.

China, Pakistan’s long-time ally, and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged both countries to exercise restraint.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said she had spoken to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Indian diplomats met foreign ambassadors to assure them no escalation was planned.

But as fears grew that the conflict could escalate, hospitals in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province were ordered to set a quarter of beds aside for “a national cause”, officials said.

“We put all hospitals in the province on high alert due to the present situation on the border with India and issued directives to all heads of the hospitals to be prepared for any sort of emergency,” provincial secretary health Dr Farooq Jameel told Reuters.

Indian and Pakistan troops exchanged gunfire along several sectors of their contested border in Kashmir later on Tuesday and local officials on the Pakistani side said at least four people had been killed and seven wounded.

Giving the Pakistan military’s account of the Indian incursion, spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said Pakistani aircraft were patrolling and identified Indian jets on the Indian side of the border near Okara and Lahore in Punjab as well as Muzaffarabad where they crossed and were engaged. They left Pakistani airspace after only four minutes.

He denied the incursion had caused any damage, saying there was no debris, “not even a single brick” and no casualties.

“You have proved you are not a democracy, you have chosen the path of war,” he said, addressing his remarks to India.

(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie, Drazen Jorgic, Asif Shahzad, Fayaz Bukhari, Neha Dasgupta, Aftab Ahmed, Nidhi Verma; and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Alasdair Pal and Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Alison Williams and James Dalgleish)

Pakistan court upholds acquittal of Christian woman accused of blasphemy

Paramilitary soldiers stand guard outside the Supreme Court building in Islamabad, Pakistan January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Saiyna Bashir

By Asif Shahzad

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the acquittal of a Christian woman who spent years on death row after being convicted of blasphemy, dismissing a petition filed by Islamists who have called for her execution.

“On merit, this petition is dismissed,” Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa said in court, saying the petitioners, led by a village prayer leader, had failed to point out any mistake in the original judgment

Asia Bibi, a farm worker, was convicted in 2010 of making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors working in the fields with her objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

Her conviction was overturned in October, prompting protests from religious hardliners calling for her death and demanding that the government prevent her from leaving the country.

Under pressure from days of protests in the capital, Islamabad, and other cities, the government agreed to stop Bibi leaving the country until the Supreme Court heard a review petition.

Bibi, who spent eight years on death row, has been in hiding since the Supreme Court freed her in October. She has always denied committing blasphemy.

In remarks in court, Khosa was severely critical of the petitioners’ attempt to have the judgment reversed and said Bibi had been convicted on the basis of false evidence, pointing to discrepancies in testimony presented in the original case.

“You think we give the death sentence to someone on the basis of false evidence?” Khosa said. “Such lies were told that one statement doesn’t match with another.”

“Please point out any error in our judgment and we’re ready to rectify it,” he said.

“You start declaring someone deserves to be killed just on the basis of false evidence.”

Hours before the Supreme Court announced its decision, Shafeeq Ameeni, acting head of the hardline Tehreek-e Labaik group, which led the protests last year, issued a new warning to the court not to rule in favor of the “blasphemer”.

Ameeni was not immediately available for comment after the ruling.

Bibi’s case attracted headlines around the world last year, highlighting Pakistan’s strict anti-blasphemy laws which campaigners have urged the government to repeal.

Rights group Amnesty International issued a statement calling for Bibi, who is staying at an undisclosed location, to be allowed to “reunite with her family and seek safety in a country of her choice”.

“The authorities must also resist and investigate any attempts to intimidate the Supreme Court,” said Amnesty International’s South Asia campaigner, Rimmel Mohydin.

“They have a duty to protect against threats of violence to harm religious minorities or the lives of judges or other government officials.”

If allowed to do so, Bibi is expected to seek asylum abroad. In November, Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau said his country was in talks with Pakistan about helping her.

(Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Robert Birsel)