ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's agreement with the United States does not prevent it from using F-16 fighter jets in a conflict with India, and Indian claims of shooting down a Pakistani aircraft in a recent dogfight between the two nations is untrue, according to an influential U.S.-based publication.
Foreign Policy magazine quoted two senior U.S. defense officials with direct knowledge of the situation as saying American personnel recently counted Islamabad's F-16s and found none missing. It did not identify the officers. The personnel were invited by Pakistan to count its F-16 planes after the incident.
"The findings directly contradict the account of Indian Air Force officials, who said that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman managed to shoot down a Pakistani F-16 before his own [MiG21] plane was downed by a Pakistani missile," said the report published Thursday.
The Indian pilot took a missile hit during the Feb. 27 aerial battle over the disputed Kashmir region and ejected safely into Pakistani territory. He was captured by Pakistani troops and freed two days later, effectively bringing the two countries back from the brink of another full-scale war. The two nations previously have fought four wars, in 1947, 1965, 1971 and a limited conflict in 1999.
The magazine noted "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."
There was no Indian or U.S. official reaction to the report.
The Pakistan military has consistently maintained it did not lose any aircraft and instead asserts the dogfight destroyed two Indian fighter jets — claims New Delhi rejected.
A military spokesman Friday hailed the findings by Foreign Policy, saying the "truth always prevails."
"Time for India to speak truth about false claims & actual losses on their side including the second aircraft shot down by Pakistan," tweeted Major-General Asif Ghafoor.
The dogfight occurred a day after Indian jets crossed deep into Pakistan territory and allegedly destroyed the suspected training camp of an anti-India militant group. Pakistani officials rejected Indian claims of hitting any camp or killing a large number of militants before undertaking the retaliatory military action the following day.
Foreign media reports from the site, backed by satellite images, also contradicted Indian claims the Feb. 26 counterterrorism cross-border strike had damaged any structure or killed militant casualties.
"When the incident occurred, India asked the U.S. government to investigate whether Pakistan's use of the F-16 against India violated the terms of the foreign military sale agreements," according to Foreign Policy magazine.
However, "the agreement did not involve any terms limiting the use of the F-16s," the magazine quoted the second U.S. defense official as saying.
"It would be incredibly naive for us to believe that we could sell some type of equipment to Pakistan that they would not intend to use in a fight," the official said.
General Ghafoor tweeted a picture Friday of what he said were four unused Indian missiles mounted on the downed MiG-2 to support assertions that no Pakistani aircraft got hit in the dogfight.
"All 4 missile seeker heads recovered intact from the wreckage & held. Pakistan and its professional armed forces staying humble by not drum beating. We have more truth on this to share," Ghafoor said.
The reported revelations are seen as a fresh blow to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, heading into an election next week that observers anticipate will be a tight contest.
Indian media and opposition politicians have been demanding that Modi offer proof to support claims the airstrikes hit terrorists in Pakistan's Balokot region. They insist the Indian leader orchestrated the military action merely to achieve political gains ahead of the polls.
"Another blow delivered to India," observed Michael Kugelman of the Washington-based Wilson Center in a series of tweets. "There could be some deleterious political implications there, just days before the election."
The cross-border counterterrorism airstrike has been a top campaigning issue during Modi's election rallies, underscoring that he's tough on national security, especially with regard to Pakistan if BJP returns to power.
Indian officials said the air raid had struck a camp allegedly linked to the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad militant group, which reportedly had claimed responsibility for the Feb. 14 suicide car bombing in Kashmir's Pulwama district that killed more than 40 Indian security personnel. Islamabad had denied any role in the violence and offered New Delhi cooperation to investigate it and bring perpetrators to justice.