India said on Thursday it had conducted "surgical strikes" on suspected militants preparing to infiltrate from Pakistan-ruled Kashmir, making its first direct military response to an attack on an army base it blames on Pakistan.
The cross-border action inflicted significant casualties, the Indian army's head of operations told reporters in New Delhi, while a senior government official said Indian soldiers had crossed the border to target militant camps.
Pakistan said there had been no such targeted strikes, but some military officers said it had repulsed the Indian troops and returned fire across the Line of Control, the de facto frontier that runs through the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir.
The Indian announcement followed through on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's warning that those responsible "would not go unpunished" for a Sept. 18 attack on an Indian army base at Uri, near the frontier, that killed 18 soldiers.
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Indian army soldiers carry the coffins of their colleagues who were killed after gunmen attacked an Indian army base in Kashmir's Uri on Sunday, during a wreath laying ceremony in Srinagar, September 19, 2016 Reuters
The strikes also raised the possibility of a military escalation between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan that would wreck a 2003 Kashmir ceasefire.
Lt General Ranbir Singh, the Indian army's director general of military operations, said the strikes were launched on Wednesday based on "very specific and credible information that some terrorist units had positioned themselves ... with an aim to carry out infiltration and terrorist strikes".
Singh said he had called his Pakistani counterpart to inform him of the operation.
The top spokesman for the Pakistani military slammed the Indian account of its action as "totally baseless and completely a lie".
"We deny it. There is no such thing on the ground. There is just the incident of the firing last night, which we responded to," Lt General Asim Bajwa told news channel Geo TV.
Pakistan said two of its soldiers had been killed and nine wounded in firing across the Line of Control.
No more strategic restraint
The Indian version of events represents a departure from a traditional policy of strategic restraint in the face of what New Delhi sees as cross-border terrorist acts that it believes are sponsored by the Pakistani state.
"The bigger message is that Pakistan is now on notice that cross-border attacks would be part of our response if there are any more terrorist attacks," said former Indian air vice marshal Manmohan Bahadur.
It also comes at a particularly delicate time for Pakistan, with powerful Army Chief of Staff General Raheel Sharif due to retire shortly and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif still to decide on a successor.
The Pakistani premier condemned what he called India's "unprovoked and naked aggression" and called a cabinet meeting on Friday to discuss further steps.
Share markets in India and Pakistan fell on India's announcement. India's NSE index was down 1.6% at 0958 GMT after falling as much 2.1% to its lowest since August 29, while Pakistan's benchmark 100-share index was down 0.12%.
India announced its retaliation at a news conference in New Delhi that was hurriedly called, only to be delayed, as Modi chaired a meeting of his cabinet committee on security to be briefed on the operation.
"The prime minister is clear that this is exactly what we should have done," a senior government official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "Informing the world about the surgical strike was important today."
US National Security Adviser Susan Rice spoke with her Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, before news of the Indian cross-border operation broke, the White House said.
Rice discussed deepening collaboration between the United States and India on counter-terrorism and urged Pakistan to combat and delegitimise individuals and entities designated by the United Nations as terrorists.
Exchanges of fire took place in the Bhimber, Hot Spring, Kel and Lipa sectors in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and lasted about six hours, the Pakistani military said earlier.
An Indian army officer in Kashmir said there had been shelling from the Pakistani side of the border into the Nowgam district, near the Line of Control, and the exchange of fire was continuing.
There were no casualties or damage reported on the Indian side of the frontier.
Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir in full, but govern separate parts, and have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over Kashmir.
Tension between the South Asian rivals has been high since an Indian crackdown on dissent in Kashmir following the killing by security forces of Burhan Wani, a young separatist leader, in July.
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Indian army's director general of military operations Lt Gen Ranbir Singh speaks during a media briefing in New Delhi, India, September 29, 2016 Reuters
They rose further when New Delhi blamed Pakistan for the Uri attack, which inflicted the heavies toll on the Indian army of any single incident in 14 years.
India has been ratcheting up pressure on Pakistan, seeking to diplomatically isolate it at the UN General Assembly in New York and winning expressions of condemnation from the United States, Britain and France over the attack.
China, another of the permanent members of the UN Security Council and a traditional ally of Pakistan, has urged dialogue between the two antagonists.
On Wednesday, officials from several countries said a November summit of a the South Asian regional group due to be held in Islamabad may be called off after India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan said they would not attend.