Weeks after aerial face-off, Pakistan's armed forces on high alert to retaliate against possible 'Indian aggression'

Kaswar Klasra

Islamabad: Three weeks after the 26 February airstrikes, as the Indian government and forces claim more evidence of Balakot strike being a successful one, the Pakistan Air Force has lined up its F-16s across the eastern border from Sindh in South to Skardu in North and deployed special forces along the Line of Control.

Rising passions on television news aired across both countries have only made matters worse. While Indians want a war against the nurturing of terrorism aimed at destroying their nation, the Pakistanis seek a strong retaliation against an enormous established enemy that helps Pakistan's army justify its massive expenses.

Global superpowers, including the US, France and Saudi Arabia, have made efforts since mid-February to de-escalate tensions between the two neighbours. But, the preparations going on along the India-Pakistan border and within the Pakistan defence forces suggest otherwise. Pakistan has deployed its JF-17 fighter aircraft and a fleet of F-16 jets along the Indian border, apart from deploying a heavy contingent of ground troops aided by sophisticated artillery and field hospitals along the LoC. Pakistani forces have called back all men from routine leave and suspended weekly holidays for an unspecified period.

Medical staff on alert

Doctors, para-medical staff and consultants at armed forces-run hospitals across Pakistan have been advised to remain available around the clock and main army-run hospitals at Muzaffarabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta are functioning under a declared emergency.

Senior officials said in conversations that Pakistan's armed forces are ready and will go the extra mile to defend their homeland.

"We are fully equipped militarily to take the bull by the horns. But, we are still open for talks and will try our level best to avoid war," a senior military official told this correspondent, confirming that the country's air force, navy and ground forces are fully equipped and on standby to retaliate. He avoided providing any precise details when asked if a squadron of F-16 fighter jets had been deployed at the border with India.

"As I said, our air force, navy and ground forces are on standby. I hope you have got my point," said the official, who has been directly involved in formulating strategy when it comes to the counter-Indian advance. Background interviews and conversations with civilian and military officials in posts of authority who wished to stay anonymous reveal that a fleet of JF-17 fighter jets, developed by China and Pakistan in collaboration, and an F-16 fighter jet squadron have been deployed at a newly-developed airfield at a location in Gujrat district, close to the north-western border of India.

However, there was no official word on the development.

Imran Khan for trade over war

Prime Minister Imran Khan on Friday asked tribesmen living in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan to standby in the wake of possible Indian aggression. "We don't want to go to war with India. Rather, I'm ready to hold talks with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. we want to open the doors of trade," Khan said at a public rally in Bajaur district. The last round of offensive fire exchange across the LoC saw a lull only when Pakistan's Director-General Military Operations called his Indian counterpart on 5 March to resume their routine call, which he had discontinued since 26 February. The two sides had been shelling heavy mortar and 120 mm rounds in several sectors across the LOC and blaming each other for violating the ceasefire.

In Islamabad, PAF aircraft, including F-16 fighter jets, have been regularly seen taking to the skies.

Tension across Pakistan is at an all-time high following the aerial strike by Indian fighter jets that allegedly pounded targets in Balakot, killing almost two hundred militants, according to Indian claims. This only followed a serious aerial clash between Indian and Pakistani aircraft over LoC leading to the downing of an Indian jet and the capture of its pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was released 60 hours later by Pakistan in an attempt to de-escalate growing tensions.

With the patrols of its fighter jets across the LoC in broad daylight, Pakistan has made it clear that it wants its neighbour not to underestimate its ability to engage in armed conflict in order to safeguard its land, airspace and waters. While the country's civilian leadership insisted that it wants peace and stability in the region, the Pakistan Army said last Thursday it is ready to thwart any "Indian aggression" amidst tense ties with New Delhi.

"Due to the prevailing environment, Pakistan Army troops are at high alert along LoC with required safeguards along the eastern border in place to thwart any Indian aggression," the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) of the Pakistan Army stated. The director-general of Pakistan's Military Media Wing told reporters last week that both the PAF and the Pakistan Navy (PN) "continue to stay fully alert" and remain ready to counter any ill-advised adventurism by India.

"The Pakistan armed forces are in a state of readiness for all eventualities," the Pakistan Army had said in a press statement amid rising tensions in the aftermath of Pulwama terror attack claimed by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terror group.

Courting China to call truce

In Islamabad, it is believed that China played a vital role in defusing tensions between the two arch rivals. While Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi did ask ministers in both Pakistan and India to practice restraint and find a way to deescalate the situation, he did so only after repeated calls went to him from the Pakistan foreign ministry.

Deputy head of the Chinese mission in Islamabad, Zhao Lijian, said that China has played a "constructive" role in urging the two neighbour countries to restrain their forces. Earlier this month, China's vice-foreign minister Kong Xuanyou visited Islamabad. During the visit, that concluded on 6 March, he reiterated Beijing's support to Pakistan for peace and stability in the region and also acknowledged Islamabad's measures against terrorism.

Earlier this month, Pakistan's navy claimed to have intercepted an Indian submarine that allegedly attempted to sail into Pakistan's waters. Delhi denied Islamabad's claim. Pakistan said the incident occurred on 4 March, when the country's navy "detected and blocked" an Indian Navy submarine from entering its waters. It released video footage that went viral on social media.

Pakistani news channels aired the footage as 'Breaking News'. The footage had shown an Indian submarine on the water's surface with a timestamp of 8:35 pm, Monday, 4 March, 2019. The Indian side on the night of 13 March put its air defence systems on alert after spotting two Pakistani jets in the airspace near LOC, Indian government sources were reported as saying.

The author is a Rawalpindi-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters

Also See: Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman's debriefing concludes, will go on sick leave for few weeks: IAF sources

Imran Khan says Tipu Sultan is his 'hero', but for the sake of peace, Pakistan PM should look at Jinnah as his role model

'You hunted the hunter': Indian Air Force's latest praise for Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman

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