Union minister Nirmala Sitharaman today weighed in on the debate over the casualty figure in the February 26 air strikes at Pakistan's Balakot. Amid opposition demands for an account of the impact of the air strikes, conflicting remarks have come from the Air Force, the BJP and the government, triggering a controversy.
"The foreign secretary gave the statement; that is the figure," Ms Sitharaman said, referring to the briefing by Vijay Gokhale the day the air strikes took place.
The foreign secretary, however, had not given any figure. The ministry statement said: "In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated."
Even the Air Force has not given any casualty figure. Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa on Monday said the Air Force doesn't count the number of casualties. "Air Force is not in a position to clarify how many people were inside. We don't count human casualties. We count what targets we have hit or not hit," he told reporters.
But yesterday, BJP chief Amit Shah claimed over 250 terrorists were killed in last week's air strike. As the opposition rushed to question his claim, Union Minister VK Singh today said it was not a confirmed figure but an estimate.
The opposition has been battering the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of politicising the air strike.
Ms Sitharaman also sought to silence speculations on the air strike coming in an election year. "There is no relationship between the air strike and elections. It was based on intelligence inputs on terrorist activities in Pakistan, to be unleashed against India. It was not a military action," she said.
The Defence Minister's comment that the government's position has been communicated by the Foreign Secretary is likely to give more ammo to the opposition, after Amit Shah's claims on the casualty figures.
At a public meeting in Ahmedabad on Monday, Amit Shah had said, "After Uri, our forces went into Pakistan and carried out surgical strikes. They avenged the death of our soldiers. After Pulwama, everyone thought there could be no surgical strikes, what will happen? But under (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi's leadership, the government carried out an air strike after the 13th day and killed more than 250 terrorists."
Two days ago, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath gave a large portion of his speech on the Balakot air strike at a BJP rally in Amethi - Congress chief Rahul Gandhi's constituency - where PM Modi and Ms Sitharaman announced a "defence corridor" to manufacture a modern derivative of the AK-47 assault rifle in collaboration with a Russian firm.
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