Tensions heighten after Indian helicopter is shot down by Stinger missile


Tensions between India and Pakistan escalated yesterday after an Indian helicopter gunship was shot down by Pakistan-backed Muslim guerrillas, using a US-made America Stinger missile. At the time the helicopter was carrying out air strikes against armed intruders in northern Kashmir state. A military spokesman in New Delhi said India's Mi-17 gunship was hit by the surface-to-air missile at 16,000 feet in Kashmir's remote Kargil region.

The two helicopter pilots and two gunners died after it exploded around 6km inside Indian territory. "We will now review our options," Air Vice Marshal S.K. Malik said without elaborating. He added that India's military had adequate weapons to deal with anything the guerrilla fighters had in their arsenal. Military officials said the mercenaries, many of whom are believed to be Afghans, are experienced in using Stinger missiles, having used them to great effect against Russian gunships in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The helicopter was brought down a day after India lost two fighter jets over Kashmir. One of the Russian-built MiG fighter aircraft was shot down by the Pakistani military, while the other reportedly crashed due to mechanical failure, heightening tensions between the two nuclear-capable neighbours.

Indian and Pakistan have been at war three times since independence 52 years ago. In Thursday's incident, Squadron Leader A. Ahuja died, while Flight-Lieut K. Nachiketa was taken captive by Pakistan. India has demanded his return and said he must be treated as a prisoner-of-war in keeping with international conventions. Military officers said the shooting down of the Mi-17 helicopter came a day after the air force decided to field more helicopters as they were proving to be more effective against the guerrillas.

Helicopters like the Russian-built Mi-17, they said, hugged the terrain, flew low over the intruders and effectively fired rockets at them. "When the enemy is dug in it's more difficult to use fighter aircraft " said Air chief marshal S.K. Kaul, former chief-of-air staff.

The Mi-17s, configured to fire rockets, have proved more effective than high-speed fighter aircraft that had only fleeting seconds to spot their target before firing. They were also relatively unaffected by bad weather that can prevent fighters from taking off. The Indian Defence Minister, Mr George Fernandes, said the Kashmir stand-off had been masterminded by the Pakistani army, with the civilian government contributing nothing to its escalation. For over 25 years, since independence a military junta has ruled Pakistan with the army dictating policy on nuclear issues. India yesterday claimed that some 50 sorties by its fighters and helicopters to hit the mountain positions occupied by the intruders had been successful in pushing them back. It claimed it had killed around 200 intruders, while 24 of its soldiers had died and 131 were wounded, 30 of them seriously in the campaign. Another 12 soldiers, including an officer were missing. Heavy troop movements were reported in Pakistani-held Kashmir as both sides continued to trade artillery and small arms fire along the border.

India said the Pakistani build-up across Kashmir's line of control was a defensive movement and "suitable precautions" had been taken.

A dusk-to-dawn curfew is in place in the India's border town of Amritsar in Punjab state and all civilian movement is prohibited from going within 500 metres of the Pakistani border after dark. The army has also been placed on high alert in neighbouring Rajasthan state, which borders Pakistan.

All the fighting in the three wars took place in these two states and Kashmir Meanwhile, the United States, Russia and other European countries have suggested restraint by the two neighbouring nuclear powers, fearing Kashmir could trigger off another deadly conflict.