NEW DELHI / ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – The clash between India and Pakistan last month threatened to escape control and only US interventions, including national security adviser John Bolton, opened a bigger conflict, five family sources with events.
PHOTO FILES: An Indian police officer fires a tear gas bullet at the protesters, during a protest against the recent killings in Kashmir, in Srinagar on 8 May 2018. REUTERS / Danish Ismail / File Photo
At one point, India threatened to fire at least six missiles in Pakistan, and Islamabad said it would respond with its "three times" missile attacks, according to Western diplomats and government sources in New Delhi, Islamabad and Washington .
The way the tensions suddenly worsened and threatened to wage a war between nuclear-armed nations shows how the Kashmir region, claiming both and being at the center of their hostility, remains one of the most dangerous points of inflammation in the world.
The exchanges did not go beyond threats, and there was no suggestion that the missiles involved were anything more than conventional weapons, but they created consternation in the official circles of Washington, Beijing and London.
Reuters has put together the events that led to the most serious military crisis in South Asia since 2008, as well as concerted diplomatic efforts to induce both sides to back off.
The latent dispute broke out at the end of last month, when Indian and Pakistani planes engaged in aerial combat on Kashmir on February 27, a day after an incursion by Indian air fighters over what was said to be a militant camp in Pakistan. Islamabad denied any militant camps in the area and said Indian bombs exploded on an empty hill.
In their first clash after the last war between the two nations in 1971, Pakistan shot down an Indian plane and captured its pilot after being expelled to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.
Hours later, videos of the bloodied, handcuffed and blindfolded Indian pilot appeared on social media, identifying with Pakistani interrogations, deepening anger in New Delhi.
With Prime Minister Narendra Modi facing the general elections in April-May, the government was pressured to respond.
"DON'T GO BACK"
That evening, Ajit Doval, Indian national security adviser, spoke on a secure line to the head of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Asim Munir, to tell him that India would not support its new "anti-terrorism" campaign even after the pilot's capture, an Indian government source and a Western diplomat with knowledge of the conversations told Reuters in New Delhi.
Doval told Munir that the struggle of India was with the militant groups operating freely from Pakistani soil and that it was ready to intensify, the government source said.
A Pakistani government minister and a Western diplomat in Islamabad have separately confirmed a specific Indian threat to use six missiles on targets within Pakistan. They did not specify who delivered the threat or who received it, but the minister said that the Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies "were communicating with each other during the fight, and even now they are communicating with each other".
Pakistan said it would oppose any Indian missile attack with many more launches of its own, the minister told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"We said that if you shoot a missile, we'll shoot three. Whatever India will do, we will respond three times," the Pakistani minister said.
Doval's office did not respond to a request for comment. India was not aware of any missile threat released in Pakistan, a government official said in response to a request for Reuters comments.
The Pakistani military refused to comment and Munir could not be reached for comment. The Pakistani foreign ministry did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
The crisis developed as US President Donald Trump was trying to establish an agreement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi on his nuclear program.
The United States security advisor Bolton was on the phone with Doval on the night of February 27th, and in the early hours of February 28, the second day of the Trump-Kim talks, in an attempt to defuse the situation, the Western diplomat in New Delhi and the Indian official said.
Later, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was also in Hanoi, also invited both sides to seek a way out of the crisis.
"Secretary Pompeo has directly led the diplomatic engagement, and this has played an essential role in reducing the tensions between the two sides," State Department spokesman Robert Palladino told a briefing in Washington on March 5 .
A State Department official declined to comment when asked if they were aware of the missile threats.
Pompeo spoke with Doval, the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers Sushma Swaraj and Shah Mahmood Qureshi, respectively, said Palladino.
The US admiral from the United States, commander Phil Davidson, told reporters in Singapore last week that he had been in contact separately with the head of the Indian navy, Sunil Lanba, during the crisis. There was no immediate response from Lanba's office to a question about the nature of conversations.
US efforts focused on ensuring the rapid release of the Indian pilot by Pakistan and the conquest by India of an insurance that would withdraw from the threat to launch missiles, the Western diplomat in New Delhi and officials in Washington.
"We made a great effort to involve the international community in encouraging the two sides to reduce the situation because we realized how dangerous it was," said a senior Trump official.
The Pakistani minister said that China and the UAE also intervened. The Chinese foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment. The United Arab Emirates government said that Abu Dhabi's crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, held talks with Imi Khan and the Pakistani Prime Minister.
India did not provide details, but said it was in contact with the major powers during the conflict.
On the morning of February 28th, Trump told reporters in Hanoi that he expected the crisis to end soon.
"They tried and we were involved in trying to stop them. I hope it's about to end."
Later that afternoon, Khan announced in Pakistan's parliament that the Indian pilot would be released, and that he was sent back the next day.
"I know last night there was a threat that could have attacked a missile on Pakistan, which was defused," said Khan. "I know, our army has prepared for the retaliation of that attack."
The two countries have entered the war three times since they both achieved independence in 1947, the last time in 1971. The two armies are firing along the line of control that separates them from Kashmir, but the tensions appear to be contained for now.
Diplomatic experts have stated that the last crisis has underlined the possibilities of wrong signals and the unpredictability of the links between rivals equipped with nuclear weapons and the enormous dangers. It is not yet clear whether India has targeted a militant camp in Pakistan and whether there have been victims, they said.
"Indian and Pakistani leaders have long shown that they can understand each other's signs of dissuasion and can give up at will," said Joshua White, a former White House official who is now at Johns Hopkins.
"The fact that some of the most basic facts, intentions and attempts at strategic signals of this crisis are still shrouded in mystery … should be a reminder to remember that neither country can easily control a crisis once it has started ".
Additional reports by Asif Shahzad at ISLAMABAD, Phil Stewart, Mark Hosenball, Jonathan Landay at WASHINGTON, Joe Brock in Singapore and William James in London; Edited by Martin Howell and Raju Gopalakrishnan