Pakistani village asks: Where are bodies of militants India says it bombed?

JABA, Pakistan (Reuters) - The only confirmed victim of India’s air strike against Pakistan is still unsure why he was shaken awake in the early hours of Tuesday by an explosion that rocked his mud brick house and left him with a cut above his right eye.

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

“They say they wanted to hit some terrorists. What terrorists can you see here?” said 62-year-old Nooran Shah, a resident of Jaba village, near the northeastern town of Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

“We are here. Are we terrorists?”

India says Tuesday’s raid destroyed a major training camp of Jaish-e Mohammad, a militant group that claimed responsibility for a Feb. 14 attack in Indian-controlled Kashmir that killed 40 members of a paramilitary police unit.

India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said the strike killed “a very large number of Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists, trainers, senior commanders, and groups of jihadis who were being trained for Fidayeen action were eliminated.” Fidayeen is a term used to describe Islamist militants on suicide missions.

Another senior government official told reporters that about 300 militants had been killed.

On Thursday, though, a senior defense official appeared to backtrack on the claims. Asked about how much damage the warplanes had caused, Air Vice Marshal R.G.K. Kapoor said it was “premature” to provide details about casualties. But he said the Indian armed forces had “fairly credible evidence” of the damage inflicted on the camp by the air strikes.

India’s previous death toll estimates have been rubbished by Pakistan, which says the operation was a failure that saw Indian jets bomb a largely empty hillside without hurting anyone.

It isn’t clear whether the discrepancy in claims will become a factor as Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks a second term in India’s general election, which must be held by May. There has been little sign as yet of the opposition pushing the government and the armed forces for more evidence of the mission’s results.

On the wooded slopes above Jaba, villagers pointed to four bomb craters and some splintered pine trees, but could see little other impact from the series of explosions that blasted them awake at around 3.00 a.m.

“It shook everything,” said Abdur Rasheed, who drives a pickup van around the area. He said there weren’t any human casualties: “No one died. Only some pine trees died, they were cut down. A crow also died.”

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Jaba is set in a thickly wooded area of hills and streams that opens the way to the scenic Kaghan valley, a popular holiday destination for Pakistani tourists. It is a little over 60 km (37 miles) from Abbottabad, the garrison town where Osama Bin Laden was killed by American Special Forces in 2011.

Locals say 400 to 500 people live locally, scattered across hills in mudbrick homes. Reuters spoke to about 15 people, none of whom knew of any casualties apart from Nooran Shah.

“I haven’t seen any dead bodies, only a local who was hurt by something or hit by some window, he was hurt,” said Abdur Rasheed, echoing numerous others.

In Basic Health Unit, Jaba, the nearest hospital, Mohammad Saddique, an official who was on duty on the night of the attack, also dismissed claims of major casualties.

“It is just a lie. It is rubbish,” he said. “We didn’t receive even a single injured person. Only one person got slightly hurt and he was treated there. Even he wasn’t brought here.”

In Balakot, a town largely rebuilt after an earthquake in 2005, Zia Ul Haq, senior medical officer in Tehsil Headquarters Hospital said no casualties had been brought in on Tuesday.

People in the area said Jaish-e Mohammad did have a presence, running not an active training camp but a madrassa, or religious school, about one km from where the bombs fell.

“It is Taleem ul Quran madrassa. The kids from the village study there. There is no training,” said Nooran Shah.

A sign which had been up earlier in the week identifying the madrassa’s affiliation to Jaish-e Mohammad had been removed by Thursday and soldiers prevented reporters from gaining access.

But it was possible to see the structure from the back. It appeared intact, like the trees surrounding it, with no sign of any damage of the kind seen near the bomb craters.

Western diplomats in Islamabad also said they did not believe the Indian air force hit a militant camp.

“There was no militant training camp there. It hasn’t been there for a few years – they moved it. It’s common knowledge amongst our intelligence,” said one of them.

Additional reporting by Saad Sayeed and Drazen Jorgic in Islamabad; Writing by James Mackenzie