At the very moment President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are meeting in an attempt to reduce the global threat from a standoff between the US and North Korea, another terrifying flashpoint has grabbed the headlines.
India and Pakistan are trading blows with escalating aggression across their mutual boundary in Kashmir.
What makes it so dangerous is that both countries now have nuclear weapons. It is the first time two nations with such capability have been involved in military action against each other.
Not even during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 – when the world stood on the brink of nuclear war over the Soviet installation of missiles on the Caribbean island – was a shot fired in anger.
In skirmishes across the de facto border which divides the disputed Kashmir region, Pakistan has downed two Indian jets and taken one pilot captive, while India claims to have shot down a Pakistani F-16 fighter jet.
The number of casualties is sure to rise but neither side will want to lose face by being the first to back down. And the risk is clear that step by step India and Pakistan could be approaching all-out war.
Indeed Pakistan’s prime minister, the ex-cricketer Imran Khan, raised the spectre of such conflict yesterday, telling his counterparts in New Delhi that ‘better sense’ is needed ‘given the weapons we have’.
The simmering issue of Kashmir has boiled over into war between India and Pakistan three times since Britain abandoned its Indian Empire in 1947.
Pakistan has downed two Indian jets and taken one pilot (pictured) captive
After independence, the vast sub-continent was split into a Muslim Pakistan and a mainly Hindu India. But the mountainous province of Kashmir in the far north was left out on a limb. Its mainly Muslim population wanted to join Pakistan but its traditional ruler was a Hindu who chose to join the new India.
The result is that a guerilla insurgency by pro-Pakistani Muslim fighters has confronted India’s people – along with half a million Indian soldiers and police – for more than 70 years.
India is the world’s biggest democracy but it refuses to stage a referendum on Kashmir’s future. The government argues that the region is already part of India’s democracy and so doesn’t need a special say on its future.
Pakistan, however, sees Kashmir as a Muslim colony of a largely Hindu India – a colony where its people are permanently outvoted by the rest of the country.
The current crisis began when a Muslim suicide bomber killed 44 policemen in Kashmir on February 14. What has made a volatile situation worse is the fact that India’s hardline Hindu prime minister, Narendra Modi, is running for re-election in May. Rallying his fervently nationalist supporters, Mr Modi threatened revenge not just on the Kashmiri rebels but on their backers in Pakistan.
India responded by bombing what it claimed was a jihadi terrorist training camp inside Pakistan itself on Tuesday, raising tensions dramatically.
The trouble is that neither government can be seen to try to take the heat out of the situation.
Mr Modi could lose the election if he is considered weak.
Spectacle: Wreckage of a fighter jet downed in Kashmir yesterday
Police officials in Indian-occupied Kashmir said that two Indian pilots and a civilian had died after an air force plane crashed, but would not confirm if the plane had been shot down by Pakistani forces
And Imram Khan, who has himself just won an election, cannot afford to be seen to be pushed around by the country’s much bigger and stronger neighbour.
His government is a shaky coalition which includes religious hardliners who have enjoyed the backing of the Pakistani secret service in recruiting fighters for the ‘jihad’ in Kashmir. He needs the support of staunchly Muslim MPs to stay in power, and the once glamorous playboy on the London scene has become more obviously religious himself in recent years.
The events of the past two weeks are Khan’s first real test. He is acutely aware the only weapons that give his country parity with India are nuclear weapons.
Yet whatever the anger of Pakistani Muslims over the disputed territory, whatever the outrage felt by Indians at the violence in Kashmir claiming their policemen and soldiers, one thing is certain. Hundreds of millions of people live within range of India and Pakistan’s nuclear missiles. Carnage on a scale never seen in history would ensue if they were used.
The trouble is that with each new downing of a plane, with every new casualty, compromise becomes harder and harder.
Nor will Pakistan’s decision to parade that captured Indian pilot, his face bloodied, on television have made things any easier. Remember the outrage here when Saddam Hussein did exactly that to downed Tornado RAF crewmen during the First Gulf War and it is easy to understand how Indian public opinion will react.
Perhaps there is hope to be gleaned from Trump and Kim Jong-un. If they can manage talks after hurling all their bombastic abuse at each other, there is surely a chance that the democratically-elected leaders of India and Pakistan can find a way to calm the emotions which risk dragging their countries – and the entire region – towards catastrophe.
HOW PAKISTAN AND INDIA FOUND THEMSELVES ON THE BRINK OF WAR
By Vanessa Allen
Pakistan desperately tried to ease tensions with India yesterday after downing two of its neighbour’s jets.
Prime minister Imran Khan offered talks, saying two days of military action must not lead to war between the nuclear powers.
His offer of dialogue came after Pakistan’s information ministry published a video showing a captured Indian pilot who was blindfolded and bloodied. The provocative footage was later deleted – but only after being shown on state-run news programmes.
Another video circulating on social media appeared to show the pilot being beaten by a mob before the arrival of Pakistani soldiers.
Delhi admitted one of its MiG fighters had been shot down and a pilot was missing. It said its planes had destroyed a Pakistan air force jet – a claim denied by officials in Islamabad.
The foreign ministry in Delhi demanded the immediate release of its pilot and condemned the release of videos showing the captured man, saying they were a ‘vulgar display’ which violated international humanitarian law and the Geneva convention.
Pakistan had vowed to retaliate after India launched airstrikes against a terror training camp inside its neighbour’s territory – the first such attacks across the Line of Control, which splits the disputed Kashmir region, since 1971.
Mr Khan said both sides must now step back from any further action that might trigger full-scale war. In a televised address he said: ‘From here, it is imperative that we use our heads and act with wisdom. All wars are miscalculated and no one knows where they lead to. I ask India: with the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford a miscalculation?’
A White House National Security Council official said the United States was deeply concerned, adding: ‘The potential risks associated with further military action by either side are unacceptably high for both countries, their neighbours and the international community.’ In Britain, Theresa May called for ‘restraint on both sides to avoid further escalation’.
On Tuesday, Indian fighter jets unleashed air strikes near the town of Balakot, inside undisputed Pakistani territory and around 30 miles from long-disputed Kashmir.
India claimed the area was being used as a training camp for Jaish-e-Mohammed. The militant group had claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing against an Indian military convoy in the Pulwama district of Kashmir, which cost 44 lives on February 14.
India said the group was planning further attacks and the pre-emptive strike was ‘absolutely necessary’ to protect itself.
Pakistan angrily denied the site was a terrorist camp and threatened to retaliate.
Yesterday morning it bombed non-military sites in Indian-controlled areas of Kashmir.
India scrambled its MiG jets in response and two were shot down after they crossed into Pakistani airspace, according to Islamabad.
One video posted on social media showed a downed pilot being beaten by Kashmiri villagers until a Pakistani soldier stepped in to shield him, shouting ‘enough’.
In another video, posted on Twitter by Pakistan’s information ministry but later deleted, the pilot was shown blindfolded as he gave his name, rank, service number and religion before refusing to answer further questions, saying: ‘I’m sorry sir, that’s all I’m supposed to tell you.’ A later video showed him without the blindfold and sipping tea. He said he had been treated well by the Pakistani soldiers. The pilot was named in the Indian media as Abhinandan Varthama. Supporters gathered outside his home in southern India.
Pakistan has closed its entire airspace, forcing international flights to divert and reroute. At least nine airports in northern India were also closed. The international community called for calm and Iran offered to mediate in talks between the two neighbours. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis were continuing round the clock.
He added: ‘We should not underestimate the dangers in this situation. You have two nuclear powers who have a long history of tension squaring up against each other and now the start of some kind of military conflict. It’s an extremely dangerous situation.’
There were calls for further military action from right-wing politicians in India, but prime minister Narendra Modi made no comment on the latest dramatic events or Mr Khan’s offer of dialogue. Indian foreign minister Shushma Swaraj said her country would act with responsibility and restraint, adding: ‘India does not wish to see further escalation of the situation.’ However, both sides continued to launch shells across the Line of Control. Four Pakistani civilians were killed and ten injured on Tuesday. Five Indian soldiers were also hurt.
Those living along the border have been urged to leave their homes.