NEW DELHI, Feb 26 - In a pinpointed and swift air strike, India pounded Jaish-e-Mohammed�s biggest training camp in Pakistan early on Tuesday, killing up to 350 terrorists and trainers who were moved there for their protection after the Pulwama attack, officials said.
The pre-dawn operation, described as �non-military� and �preemptive�, 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.
�I want to assure the people that the country is in safe hands. There is nothing above the nation,� Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a public rally in Churu, Rajasthan, in his first remarks after the strike. He, however, did not make a direct reference to the attack or give any details.
Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale told the media 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.
Gokhale said the camp was located in Balakot but did not elaborate further. Sources said the reference was to the town in Pakistan�s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, about 80 km from the Line of Control and near Abbotabad where Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed in hiding by covert US forces.
Gokhale also did not give details of how the attacks were carried out but sources said a group of Mirage 2000 jets was used to drop bombs in the operation, which included various other aircraft.
This is the first time since the 1971 war that India has used air power against Pakistan.
India received intelligence that the JeM had shifted many in-training terrorists and hardcore operatives, along with their trainers, to the camp, about 20 km from Balakot town, which has facilities for 500 to 700 people and even a swimming pool, sources said.
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 where �the sleeping terrorists were sitting ducks for the Indian bombing�, said one source.
The entire operation, it is learnt, was over in 20 minutes, starting at 3.45 am and ending at 4.05 am.
�Credible intelligence was received that JeM was attempting another suicide terror attack in various parts of the country, and the fidayeen jihadis were being trained for this purpose,� Gokhale told the media.
In the face of imminent danger, a preemptive strike became �absolutely necessary�, the foreign secretary said.
�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,� he said, stressing that care was taken to avoid civilian casualties.
At least 325 terrorists and 25 to 27 trainers were at the camp, sources told PTI.
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, reading out from a statement.
The statement did not say if Yousuf Azhar was among those killed.
According to sources, terrorists in the Balakot camp were imparted the advanced �Daura-e-Khaas� training in weapons, explosives and field tactics, attack on convoys of security forces, planting and making of IEDs, suicide bombing, rigging vehicles for suicide attacks and survival tactics in high altitudes and extreme-stress situations. � PTI