Friday, January 21

Indian Defense Chief Among 13 Killed in Helicopter Crash | India


India’s defense chief, General Bipin Rawat, was one of 13 people who died in a helicopter crash on Wednesday, raising questions about the future of the military changes he was leading.

Rawat was India’s first chief of defense staff, a post the government established in 2019, and was seen as close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The 63-year-old was traveling with his wife and other senior officers in the Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter, which crashed near its destination in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Modi said that Rawat was an outstanding soldier and a “true patriot” who had helped modernize the country’s armed forces.

“His passing has deeply saddened me,” the prime minister tweeted. “India will never forget your exceptional service.”

Strategic analyst and author Brahma Chellaney tweeted that Rawat’s death “could not have occurred at a worse time” when “China’s 20-month border aggression has resulted in a war situation along the Himalayan front.”

Footage from the accident showed crowds of people trying to extinguish the burning wreck with buckets of water as a group of soldiers carried one of the passengers away on a makeshift stretcher.

Rawat was on his way to the Defense Services Personnel College (DSSC) to address students and faculty at the nearby Sulur air force base in Coimbatore.

Firefighters and rescuers at the scene of the helicopter accident.
Firefighters and rescuers at the scene of the helicopter accident. Photograph: AFP / Getty Images

The helicopter was already descending at the time of the accident and fell about six miles (10 km) from the nearest main road, forcing emergency workers to walk to the crash site, a fire official said.

A witness at the scene said he had seen passengers fall from the helicopter before the crash and that a person had crawled out of the wreckage.

The sole survivor, a captain working at DSSC, was being treated for his injuries at a nearby military hospital, the air force said.

Rawat was chief of the 1.3 million-strong army from 2017 to 2019 before his promotion to chief of defense services, which analysts say was to improve coordination between the army, navy and air force.

New Delhi seeks to increase its military effectiveness in the face of intense tensions with China after deadly clashes in a disputed Himalayan region, as well as its long-standing conflict with neighboring Pakistan.

Lieutenant General DS Hooda, former head of the Indian Army Northern Command, said: “He had given a tremendous boost to the integration of the three services, so his successor has big shoes to fill.

“He had a hard job … we will need someone to give him the same push that he had given so that the reforms that he initiated continue at the same pace.”

Rawat came from a military family, and several generations had served in the Indian armed forces.

The general joined the army as a second lieutenant in 1978 and had four decades of service behind him, having commanded forces in Indian-administered Kashmir and along the Royal Line of Control on the border with China.

He was credited with reducing the insurgency on India’s northeast border and oversaw a cross-border counterinsurgency operation in neighboring Myanmar.

But at the same time, he was a polarizing figure whose willingness to make political statements put him at odds with the traditional neutrality of the military in the world’s largest democracy.

He was seen as close to the Modi government and drew attention last month when he reportedly made an approving reference to the “lynching of terrorists” in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

The Mi-17 helicopter, which first entered service in the 1970s and is widely used by defense services around the world, has been involved in various accidents over the years.

Fourteen people were killed in an accident last month when an Azerbaijani military Mi-17 fell during a training flight.

In 2019, four Indonesian soldiers were killed and five others were injured in central Java in another training accident involving the aircraft.

India’s air force said an investigation was underway into Wednesday’s incident.


www.theguardian.com

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