In the most ominous military confrontation between India and Pakistan since both tested nuclear weapons two decades ago, Pakistan said it shot down two Indian military aircraft over its territory Wednesday and launched strikes in Indian-controlled Kashmir, while India claimed it had shot down a Pakistani fighter jet in the “aerial encounter.”

An especially volatile aspect of the confrontation was Pakistan’s capture of an Indian fighter pilot. Pakistani military officials posted a photo of him on Twitter and said he was being treated “as per norms of military ethics.” 

But Pakistani television showed a video of the pilot, blindfolded and apparently with blood on his face. India’s Foreign Ministry said it “strongly objected to Pakistan’s vulgar display of an injured personnel” and expected “his immediate and safe return.”

While experts warned that the clash could easily escalate out of control, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told the nation Wednesday that he wanted to avoid war with India and urged, “Let’s settle this with talks.” There was no public statement, however, by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

“Our action was only intended to convey that if you can come into our country, we can do the same,” Khan said, referring to Wednesday’s airstrikes. Addressing India, he said, “With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford a miscalculation?”

The two days of tit-for-tat airstrikes and Wednesday’s aerial dogfight, the first since 1971, were triggered by a Feb. 14 terrorist bombing in Indian-controlled Kashmir that killed 40 Indian security personnel. The bombing, claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group, was the deadliest single attack in 30 years of protests and conflict over the disputed Himalayan region.

Kashmiri villagers gather to look at the wreckage of an Indian aircraft after it crashed in the outskirts of Srinagar. (Mukhtar Khan/AP)

Indian and Pakistani officials gave conflicting accounts of the events. India claimed it had bombed a militant camp inside Pakistan on Tuesday, killing scores of people, but Pakistan said the bombs had fallen on an uninhabited forested area. Pakistan also denied India’s claims that it they had shot down a Pakistani F-16 fighter jet.

The mounting clash drew expressions of alarm from foreign governments and regional analysts, who noted that India and Pakistan have previously fought three conventional wars, two of them over competing claims to the Himalayan Kashmir region, as well as a brief high-altitude fight in the Kargil mountains of Kashmir in 1999, shortly after both countries successfully tested nuclear weapons.

Moeed Yusuf, a Pakistan expert at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington, said he feared the conflict could escalate dangerously, in large part because neither Khan, who has been in office only a few months, nor Modi, who is running for reelection, may be able to back down without losing domestic political stature.

Yusuf said intervention by Washington or Beijing might be the only way to restore calm. “What started as mere posturing is now a real near-war crisis that can easily spill into real combat,” he said.

In previous moments of high tension between India and Pakistan, such as the Kargil conflict, the United States has played a key role in defusing the situation. On Wednesday, the Trump administration did not immediately respond to the latest confrontation, but other countries expressed concern and called on both sides to reduce hostilities.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Wednesday that he was “very concerned” about the rising tensions and that he had spoken with both his Indian and Pakistani counterparts about it. “Neither side wants to see this escalate further, but this is going to take really critical restraint in the days ahead,” he said. Russia’s foreign ministry “expressed hope for the de-escalation of the situation.”

Khan said his government had offered to help investigate the Feb. 14 bombing. Pakistan denied any links with the attackers, but it has long publicly supported what it calls Kashmiri “freedom fighters” and condemned Indian brutality against protesters. The Indian and Pakistani portions of Kashmir are divided by a militarized “Line of Control.”

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said its retaliatory airstrikes were aimed at “nonmilitary targets” to avoid human loss and damage. It said Pakistan has “no intention of escalation, but we are fully prepared to do so if forced.”

India confirmed that one MiG-21 fighter jet was shot down in an “aerial engagement” with Pakistani forces on Wednesday morning.

Despite official claims about wanting to avoid escalation, a mood of belligerent triumph spread across Pakistani news stations and online Wednesday. War songs were played, commentators praised the Pakistan military, and shouts of “God is greatest” could be heard. Images of an Indian plane with burning debris were broadcast repeatedly.

 Pakistani officials also claimed Wednesday afternoon that India had committed “unprovoked cease-fire violations” along the Line of Control on Tuesday, resulting in the deaths of four civilians, three of them women. A Foreign Ministry statement named the four individuals but did not say where or how they died. It called the targeting of civilian areas “deplorable” and said such cease-fire violations could lead to a “strategic miscalculation.”

Indian paramilitary soldiers carry the remains of colleagues at the site of an explosion that killed at least 40 soldiers in Pampore on Feb. 14. (Dar Yasin/AP)

Pakistani commentators warned that the situation could rapidly spiral out of control.

“What we saw today is the beginning, and things could move to war. If that happens, it would be catastrophic,” Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, a longtime federal minister, said Wednesday. “Indians have committed an extreme stupidity, and today we have given our response . . . They don’t know who they have challenged.”

Imad Zafar, a columnist writing in the online Pakistan Tribune, warned that the Indian attack was a “trap” set by Modi, a Hindu nationalist who is running for reelection. “A war between two nuclear-armed states can only bring destruction on both sides. We may destroy each other in a matter of minutes,” he wrote, calling for bilateral dialogue. “We don’t want war, India. Neither should you.”

Some experts said the tit-for-tat nature of the last two days might open a window to de-escalate tensions. India has “talked up the strike on the terror camp,” while Pakistan has “captured an Indian pilot and shot down an Indian fighter jet,” said Ajai Shukla, a defense analyst and former army officer in Delhi. “Both sides have something they can hold on to.”

Indian army soldiers arrive near the wreckage of an Indian aircraft after it crashed in the outskirts of Srinagar. (Mukhtar Khan/AP)

As tensions mounted on Wednesday, commercial flights were suspended across Pakistan and a swath of northwestern India. For most of the day, flight tracking websites showed no commercial flights in the air in Pakistan and none across most of the Indian states of Punjab, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir. India’s Civil Aviation Authority later lifted restrictions on flights.

In Indian-controlled Kashmir, residents braced for the worst. Vikas Bhasin, 61, a shopkeeper in the Poonch region near the Line of Control, said that around 10 a.m., he saw fighter jets that he believed were Pakistani aircraft streaking through the sky. After the aircrafts passed overhead, police drove through the area and made announcements on loudspeakers saying there was no need to panic, Bhasin said.

 In Srinagar, the largest city in Indian Kashmir, locals have been on edge ever since the Feb. 14 attack. Over the weekend there were reports of hoarding of fuel and groceries as residents anticipated a possible clash between India and Pakistan. But the closure of the Srinagar airport for much of the day on Wednesday was “serious and unsettling,” said Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, 50. “Things seem to be collapsing.”

Slater reported from New Delhi. Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Ishfaq Naseem in Srinagar, India, contributed to this report.