- Indian Air Force in February displayed pieces of AMRAAM missile
- Pakistan invited US to physically count its F-16 planes
- India maintains MiG-21 Bison shot down Pakistani F-16
India's assertion that its fighter pilot shot down a Pakistani F-16 fighter jet in a dogfight in February may not be correct, American news publication Foreign Policy has claimed in a report quoting unnamed US defense officials. "Two senior US defense officials with direct knowledge of the situation told Foreign Policy that U.S. personnel recently counted Islamabad's F-16s and found none missing," the publication says in a report published on Thursday.
The government had said that in an aerial duel on February 27 - a day after India sent fighter jets to Pakistan's Balakot to strike a terror training camp - Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman had engaged with one of the Pakistani fighter jets that tried to target Indian military facilities and shot it down before he was hit and forced to eject. Abhinandan Varthaman landed across the Line of Control and was in Pakistani custody for three days before he was returned to India amid attempts to de-escalate the crisis between the two sides.
The Indian Air Force had on February 28 displayed pieces of the AMRAAM missile, fired by a Pakistani F-16, as evidence. But that, by itself, does not offer any clues on whether Abhinandan Varthaman had shot down a Pakistan Air Force F-16, as has been repeatedly claimed by the government and the IAF.
According to the Foreign Policy magazine, Pakistan invited the United States to physically count its F-16 planes after the incident as part of an end-user agreement signed when the foreign military sale was finalized.
"A US count of Pakistan's F-16 fleet has found that all the jets are present and accounted for, a direct contradiction to India's claim that it shot down one of the fighter jets during a February clash," Lara Seligman of the magazine reports.
The count has been completed, and "all aircraft were present and accounted for", an unnamed official is quoted as saying.
"It is possible that in the heat of combat, Varthaman, flying a vintage MiG-21 Bison, got a lock on the Pakistani F-16, fired, and genuinely believed he scored a hit. But the count, conducted by U.S. authorities on the ground in Pakistan, sheds doubt on New Delhi's version of events, suggesting that Indian authorities may have misled the international community about what happened that day," says Foreign Policy.
The report comes days before voting starts for the April-May national election. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other top BJP leaders have been accused by the opposition of using the Balakot air strike, which was in response to the February 14 Pulwama terror attack, in their campaign speeches.
In an interview to India Today, the Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman had said: ''We are definitely saying that an F-16 was knocked out by us and initially, the Pakistan Prime Minister claimed that two pilots were with them. One of the pilots was ours and returned as per the norms. Who is the other pilot?''