Indian Air Force combat jets and helicopter gunships began their strikes at dawn with a series of missile and bomb attacks on militant camps at 16,000 to 18,000 feet high ridges in Kargil and Drass sectors close to the Line of Control (LoC).
The strikes would continue, officials said, adding that LoC had not been violated.
Home Minister L K Advani told reporters here that the operation by Pakistani-backed militants and Army regulars in Kargil had added a totally new and disturbing dimension to militancy in J and K but it would be smashed.
Advani said Defence Minister George Fernandes had taken prominent opposition leaders into confidence before the air strikes were carried out.
Advani told that the decision to use air power to flush out the infiltrators, including Pakistan Army Regulars and Afghan mercenaries, was taken after the Government was convinced that "this is practically the (Pakistan) Army Operation".
"This is the start of operations and they will continue till our defence forces re-occupy our territory", the Defence Ministry said in a statement.
The air attacks were conducted well within Indian territory, it said countering reports from Islamabad.
The Air Force strikes began at around 0600 hrs with fighter aircraft and helicopter gunships and the strikes were effective, Brig Mohan Bhandari, Deputy Director of Military Operations, and Air Commodore Subhash Bhojwani, Director Operations (Offensive), told newspersons.
The Government launched a diplomatic exercise by apprising the envoys of various countries of the reasons for the step and took the other political parties into confidence in this regard. Defence Minister George Fernandes called on President K R Narayanan and briefed him on the situation.
According to the latest intelligence inputs with the Defence Ministry, more than 160 intruders had been killed and their situation was becoming increasingly desperate and untenable. Srinagar Airport was sealed and all civilian flights to the state capital were canceled in view of the operations.
In Paris, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh said the IAF planes had not violated Pakistani airspace and the attacks had been carried out on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC).
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had told his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in no uncertain terms on Monday that the infiltration of motivated, trained and well armed mercenaries into the Kargil sector was "unacceptable" to India and it would be compelled to take steps to repulse the intrusion, an External Affairs Ministry spokesman said.
Asked what was the response of the Pakistan Prime Minister, he said Mr Sharif was of the view that the Director Generals of Military Operations of the two sides should establish contact.
Every type of aircraft was used in the air attacks on the positions in Drass, Batalik and Mashkoh sectors. Ground troops conveyed that the mission had been successful.
"The armed air action was resorted to as the infiltrators, who are in a considerable strength, had taken up positions of advantage in very high ridges which are difficult to neutralise by ground action alone", the Defence Ministry said.
More than 600 infiltrators have come into Indian territory since May 6. Heavy artillery firing from across the border began on May 9 which was countered by the Indian Army.
"There is no clearance at present to go across the borders but we reserve the right if there is further provocation. Should there be any direct or indirect interference in our operations by the Pakistani Army or Air Force, the Indian defence forces have been authorised to take appropriate action", Air Cmdr Bhojwani said. Air commodore Bhojwani and Brigadier Mohan Bhandari from Directorate of Military Operations said any escalation of this conflict will be entirely the responsibility of Pakistan.
Official sources said the strikes were launched at 0630 hours from several forward Air Force bases with the help of fighter jets and helicopter gunships.
At present, the camps of heavily-armed militants comprising Pakistan Army regulars and Afghan mercenaries have been hit by the Air Force mainly in the Drass sub-sector of Kargil.
This is the start of operations and they would continue till our defence forces reoccupy our territory, an official statement said.
The sources said that Air Force is expected to launch strikes in Batalik and Mashkoh Valley sectors also to neutralise the concentration of militants which is estimated between 600 and 700.
The casualty on the Indian side include 17 killed, 14 missing including three officers and 90 injured, including 20 very seriously.
Early this morning, IAF took armed air action against Pakistan-aided militants, who had infiltrated into our side of Line of Control, in general areas of Drass, Kargil and Batalik, the statement said.
All strategic bases in the Western sector have been put on full alert.
We are maintaining very clearly our operations within the Line of Control (LoC) and our pilots have been briefed properly about it, Air Commodore Bhojwani said.
He said the aim of the Air Force operations was to help the Army get the infiltrators out of the Indian territory and allow no interference from across the border.
The Indian Army is fully focused on the need to eliminate the intruders and fully restoring the sanctity of LoC. The situation is coming under control, the Defence officials said.
Infantry operations by the Army in the wake of softening the militant concentrations by the air strikes would begin shortly, they said, adding that the morale of the ground forces was high the harsh weather conditions notwithstanding.
Air Commodore Bhojwani said a survey Canberra Aircraft of the IAF, which was within Indian airspace, was recently attacked by Pakistani surface-to-air missiles inspite of prior notice to authorities in Islamabad as per a bilateral agreement on air space violations.
Due to this we had to use our fighter aircraft also to provide us the freedom of operating within our own air space without any outside interference, he said.
Referring to the enormous damage caused as a result of the military operations, the two officials said the supply lines of the infiltrators in Drass sub-sector had been cut off.
They (infiltrators) are finding it difficult to attend to those injured or bury their dead. They were now abandoning their injured, they said.
Replying to questions, they said the entire operation had been meticulously planned by Pakistan Army, its specialised SSG troops and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in a bid to occupy commanding positions at the crucial heights and also take over the vital road linking Srinagar and Leh in Ladakh via Kargil.
If militants continued to hold the heights, infiltration in this area would increase, they said, adding if not contained at this stage, Pakistan would have been encouraged to extend its operations further.
They further said delayed reaction would have called for a more severe action, possibly increasing the areas as well as the scope of the operations. If the infiltration is not arrested and the infiltrators not evicted, the alignment of the LoC could well be altered to our disadvantage.
Reacting to the strikes, Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Tariq Altaf accused India of violating the LoC but confirmed the action was confined to the Indian side of LoC.
He claimed that some bombs had fallen on the Pakistani side of the LoC but in reply to a specific question whether it meant that India was targeting something on Pakistani side, he said I have said fallen.
Asked whether Pakistan would lodge an official protest against the alleged violation of LoC, Altaf replied in the negative saying these bombs have just fallen and we hope such an action will be avoided in future.
The Directors General of Military Operations of Indian and Pakistani Armies today established contact on the hot-line to discuss the developments in Kargil sector in the wake of aerial operations.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan asked both India and Pakistan to exercise restraint while Chinese leaders urged the two sides to resolve their disputes through peaceful means.
Meanwhile, Britain expressed deep concern over infiltration of foreign mercenaries in Kargil sector and urged India and Pakistan to de-escalate the situation.
French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine asked the two sides to show utmost caution.
U S Ambassador Richard F Celeste, who met Fernandes this afternoon, expressed concern over the events in Kargil but ruled out the possibility of any intervention by it.
No way. There is no question of this, he told reporters after his meeting while replying to a question on whether there would be any intervention by Washington.
British High Commissioner Rob Young also met Fernandes.
Our Jammu Correspondent adds: Meanwhile, Defence Ministry spokesman said that the air action was taken because if the infiltrators would have not been contained at this stage, Pakistan would have been encouraged to extend its operations. Further, delayed action would have called for more severe action.
He said that if the infiltration was not stopped, the allignment of LoC would well be altered to the disadvantage of India.
He further said that the security of vital ground line communication from Srinagar to Leh via Kargil, could have been under threat.
The spokesman advised Pakistan to stop aiding the militants and also ensure the withdrawal of the infiltrators and bring the ground position to the status-quo ante.
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