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Misinformation Flies After Kashmir Air Battles


A resident points to the damaged site where Indian military aircrafts released payload on February 26.

On February 26, Indian jets launched a bombing raid on what it described as a militant training camp inside Pakistan. The air strike came in retaliation for a suicide attack in Indian-controlled Kashmir on February 14 that left 40 Indian servicemen dead.

Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale announced the air strike had taken out "a very large number" of "terrorists, trainers, senior commanders, and groups of jihadis." Another Indian official claimed some 300 militants were killed in the bombardment.

A Pakistani soldier near a crater allegedly left by an Indian air strike in Pakistan's Balakot region. Photo taken on February 28.
A Pakistani soldier near a crater allegedly left by an Indian air strike in Pakistan's Balakot region. Photo taken on February 28.

But pictures taken by a Reuters photographer who visited the scene on February 28 show only craters on a sparsely populated hillside. A local told Reuters he was jolted awake by the predawn barrage but that no one was killed.

"Only some pine trees died, they were cut down. A crow also died."

A resident points to the site where Indian jets reportedly struck in Balakot.
A resident points to the site where Indian jets reportedly struck in Balakot.

Locals did tell Reuters that Jaish-e Muhammad, the extremist organization India said it was targeting, ran a madrasah, or Islamic religious school, near where the bombs struck. But that building appeared to be intact when Reuters visited.

Indian officials later walked back the tally of alleged "terrorist" deaths, saying on February 28 it was "premature" to provide casualty details.

Then, on February 27, as Pakistani and Indian jets clashed in the skies above Kashmir, officials made contrasting claims. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced his military had shot down two Indian warplanes and captured two pilots.

In Delhi, meanwhile, a government spokesperson told reporters the Indian Air Force had shot down a Pakistani fighter plane and lost one of its own aircraft and pilots in the clash. A senior Indian Air Force officer then claimed the downed Pakistani jet was an F-16 taken down by an Indian MiG-21.

Pakistani soldiers stand next to the wreckage of an Indian fighter jet shot down in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir on February 27.
Pakistani soldiers stand next to the wreckage of an Indian fighter jet shot down in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir on February 27.

Soon afterward, photos and videos were released that confirmed one Indian pilot had been captured and an Indian MiG-21 jet had been downed, but no evidence that a second Indian plane or a Pakistani plane was shot down has since emerged.

Screen grab of a TASS article claiming a Pakistani F-16 jet was downed by the Indian Air Force.
Screen grab of a TASS article claiming a Pakistani F-16 jet was downed by the Indian Air Force.

The downing of a relatively modern F-16 fighter by an Indian Air Force MiG-21, which first took to the skies in 1959, might be a surprising takedown given the disparity in technology of the planes. And several media outlets have run with the David-and-Goliath angle of an ancient Soviet jet taking out a relatively modern American-made F-16.

Lynette Nusbacher, a strategist and former British intelligence officer, told RFE/RL that such a shoot-down is certainly possible "if the right missile or round hits [an F-16], it doesn't matter what platform the missile or round comes comes from." But Nusbacher said there was not enough open-source evidence available to say whether an F-16 had indeed been shot down.

Screen grab of an Indian news report claiming evidence of an F-16 being shot down.
Screen grab of an Indian news report claiming evidence of an F-16 being shot down.

Since the announcement that a Pakistani F-16 was downed, amateur sleuths have trawled the Internet for proof of an F-16's demise, with many major Indian news outlets basing reports on images that appear to show the downed Indian MiG, rather than a Pakistani F-16.

Screen grab of a photo gallery in The Independent that erroneously identified the aftermath of a helicopter crash as the wreckage of a jet fighter.
Screen grab of a photo gallery in The Independent that erroneously identified the aftermath of a helicopter crash as the wreckage of a jet fighter.

Further confusion followed when an Indian military helicopter crashed in Kashmir on the morning of February 27, reportedly killing several servicemen. Several major news outlets included images of the helicopter crash to illustrate the stories of downed "planes" during the crisis. The British outlet The Independent described several pictures of the helicopter wreckage, including one photo that clearly shows a helicopter rotor, as the remains of "an Indian fighter jet."

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