Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, has appealed for talks with India, making reference to both countries’ nuclear arsenals, after a series of tit-for-tat airstrikes that have edged the pair closer to war than at any point in the last 20 years.
An Indian air force pilot was in enemy custody on Wednesday after Pakistani fighter jets launched airstrikes across the heavily militarised ceasefire border in the disputed region of Kashmir. Indian MiG-21 Bison fighters gave chase and at least one was shot down over Pakistani-held territory.
Its pilot, a wing commander identified as Abhi Nandan, appeared in a bloodied uniform as he gave his name and rank in a video released by the Pakistani armed forces. Asked by his interrogator to say more, he replied: “I am sorry, sir, that’s all I’m supposed to tell you.”
Earlier footage of the captured pilot, including one video showing him being beaten by a crowd of angry civilians, made the rounds of WhatsApp and social media in India, fuelling popular concern and anger. The pilot said in a video released later by the Pakistani military that its soldiers had “rescued me from the mob”, and he was shown sipping tea.
Khan said in a televised address after the airstrikes that the time had come for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. “With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we afford miscalculation? Shouldn’t we think that if this escalates, what will it lead to?”
The dogfights on Wednesday morning were the first between the two air forces to be publicly acknowledged since 1971, and triggered the closure of every commercial airport in Pakistan and at least eight in India. Pakistan also closed its airspace, forcing international flights to be rerouted.
Srinagar, the Indian-controlled capital of the Kashmir region that both countries claim in full, appeared to be preparing for war. Its army headquarters observed a blackout overnight as Indian jets patrolled over the city. On Wednesday afternoon, a red cross was painted on the roof of its largest hospital, marking out the building as a medical facility from above.
In supermarkets in the Pakistani cities of Lahore and Islamabad, people were stockpiling groceries, while in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, leave of all police and health workers was cancelled.
Russia and the UK were among the countries calling for restraint amid fears that the region was trapped in a cycle of escalating attacks. A Pakistan-based militant group killed 40 Indian paramilitaries in a suicide bombing in Kashmir two weeks ago. Indian jets bombed what they claimed were militant training camps in Pakistan on Tuesday morning in response, triggering Wednesday’s reprisal by Pakistan.
Khan said the latest airstrikes were deployed from inside Pakistan-held territory and deliberately aimed at empty fields to send a message. “It was our plan that there should be no collateral damage, no casualties,” he said in his televised address.
“We just wanted to tell India that we have the capability that if you can come into our country, then we can also go into your country and carry out an operation.”
But India rejected his account of the operation. “[Pakistan] used its air force to target a military installation on the Indian side,” the spokesman for India’s foreign ministry, Raveesh Kumar, told journalists in Delhi.
Islamabad initially said it had captured two Indian pilots, but it had retracted the claim by Wednesday evening. Delhi also claimed to have shot down a Pakistani jet, which it said had crashed on the Pakistani side of the border.
The standoff between the two countries is heightened by India’s looming national elections starting in April. For Pakistan, the driving need is to show its more powerful neighbour that it cannot be pushed around.
Arun Sahgal, a retired Indian army brigadier turned policy analyst, said he believed both countries would walk back from the brink. “The events of today indicate a satisfied Pakistani appetite for retaliation,” the Delhi Policy Group senior fellow said.
“Both countries have lost an aircraft each so there is a degree of equivalence. And from a political perspective, the Indian prime minister [Narendra Modi] has come out looking like a decisive leader. So there is nothing more to achieve.”
But the mechanics of drawing down the conflict were another issue and fraught with their own risks, he added. “That’s where the international community must play some backchannel diplomacy that pushes the two sides together.”
Modi had yet to comment publicly on the fighting by Wednesday evening but was meeting with armed forces chiefs at his residence in Delhi. India summoned Pakistan’s acting high commissioner to the country, Syed Haider Shah, for a meeting and issued him with a formal diplomatic protest.
The petition called for Nandan’s immediate return and said India “strongly objected to Pakistan’s vulgar display of an injured personnel of the Indian air force in violation of all norms of international humanitarian law”.
Nandan, the first Indian fighter pilot captured by Pakistan since a 1999 war between the countries, said in the video released by the Pakistani military that he was being treated well.
The UK prime minister, Theresa May, said she was deeply concerned about the tensions and called for restraint on both sides.