Inside the Pakistani madrasa where India said it killed hundreds of 'terrorists'
Reuters, Jaba :
Students recite verses from the Quran at a madrasa situated near an impact site, after Indian military aircrafts struck on February 26, according to Pakistani officials, during a trip organised by the government, in Jaba village, near Balakot, Pakistan on
A madrasa, or Islamic school, on a remote hilltop in northeastern Pakistan that was the target of an Indian air strike just over six weeks ago is still not ready to give up its secrets.
For the first time since the Indian government said it had killed hundreds of "terrorists" and their trainers and associates in the school's compound, Pakistani authorities on Wednesday allowed a group of journalists working for foreign news organizations, and foreign diplomats based in Islamabad, access to the site.
The expectation among some of the visitors was that it might help to settle a number of mysteries about the attack. In particular, whether, as India had said, it was a huge success and took out a major militant training camp or whether - as Pakistan says - India's warplanes missed the madrasa compound completely and hit surrounding hills instead. The difference - as many as 300 dead militants or no fatalities at all.
There was also the question about whether the madrasa, one of more than 30,000 across Pakistan where children of all ages are taught to memorize and recite the Koran, was a cover for the Islamist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which was allegedly using the site to train fighters to infiltrate Indian-controlled Kashmir.
JeM claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb attack in Kashmir that killed 40 Indian paramilitary police on Feb 14, triggering the Indian attack and the worst hostilities between the two nuclear-armed nations for many years.
But the journalists and diplomats, most of whom spent well over an hour climbing steep slopes to get to the madrasa in the Jaba village area near the town of Balakot, didn't get enough time to make any kind of informed assessment.
They were mostly restricted to looking around the madrasa's main building. They were hurried away by the army, which organized the trip, after less than half an hour. Those arriving by vehicle had even less time.
The interactions with teachers and about 100 children at the madrasa - from the very young to older teenagers - were limited. The visitors were shown a group of children learning passages from the Koran partly by rocking their heads back and forward in rhythm. One teacher said he had worked at the madrasa for six years.
At least three of the diplomats, who were mainly from Western countries and the Middle East and included some military attaches, said it was very difficult to draw any firm conclusions because of the six-week delay in gaining access and the restricted time allowed to look around.
"I don't think the site was hit but I still can't be 100 percent after today," said one Western diplomat. "As to whether JeM were here - they may have been but I can't determine that from this either."
The diplomats declined to be named given the sensitivity of the subject.
When asked after the visit about the limitations, armed forces chief spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said Pakistan had nothing to hide and that if schedules allowed, journalists could in the future come and spend a night or even a month at the site.
He denied that the madrasa had recently been used by JeM. If there was a relationship it was a long time ago, he suggested.