Global Policy Forum

Pakistan Attacks Indian Aircraft


By Pamela Constable and Kamran Khan

Washington Post
August 12, 1999

In the second incident of airborne conflict along the India-Pakistan border in two days, Pakistan on Wednesday fired at a group of Indian military jets and helicopters flying near the crash site of a Pakistani naval reconnaissance plane that was shot down by India on Tuesday, killing all 16 people aboard. No one was injured or killed in the attacks Wednesday, and neither country called for an escalation of hostilities, but the tit-for-tat incidents seemed certain to further strain the already tense relations between the two rivals and neighbors - and to dash any remaining hopes of resuming bilateral negotiations on a variety of issues in the near future.

India and Pakistan recently ended an eight-week border conflict in the mountains of Kashmir, in which more than 500 Indian troops and Pakistani-based fighters died before Pakistan withdrew support for the fighters in July. Last year, both governments successfully tested nuclear weapons, raising international fears of a nuclear conflict in South Asia. In the wake of the shootdown Tuesday of a Pakistani Atlantique naval reconnaissance plane, Islamabad hurriedly moved anti-aircraft guns and possibly surface-to-air missiles into position along deserted portions of its border with India, including the area around crash site. Its air force also conducted a series of unusual defensive air maneuvers in the border area, official sources said.

Senior government officials in Islamabad on Wednesday held a high-level meeting of national security advisers, who called for ''an advanced state of preparedness'' and said any Indian aggression would be met with a ''befitting response.'' Sources said they had not advocated any aggressive action against India but that they also played down any prospect of resuming talks with India on a variety of long-standing grievances, including the future of Kashmir. Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz of Pakistan demanded an apology Wednesday from India for shooting down the Atlantique, which officials continued to insist was unarmed and conducting a routine training mission within Pakistani airspace.

But Indian officials adamantly refused to apologize and instead reiterated their claim that the Atlantique had entered India on an intelligence-gathering mission. They said it had been intercepted by two Indian fighter planes, warned repeatedly to land and shot down only after ignoring the requests. ''It seems very curious that a plane on a training flight should be so close to the border,'' said R.S. Jassal, spokesman for the Indian Foreign Ministry. He called the flight a ''provocative act'' that followed a ''pattern of hostile surveillance actions'' by Pakistan in the past year. He said that India's reaction was a ''purely military response to an intrusion by a military aircraft'' and that no civilian authorization for the shootdown had been requested. ''The responsibility for what happened, including any loss of life, rests squarely with Pakistan,'' Mr. Jassal said.

Indian officials said an Atlantique has the capacity to carry both bombs and missiles. They charged that Pakistani military planes have violated Indian airspace at least 50 times since January, and they showed journalists videotapes of Pakistani Atlantiques ''buzzing,'' or flying provocatively near, Indian military ships on maneuvers in international waters in the Indian Ocean. Independent defense experts here said the Atlantique was probably conducting a ''probe'' to gather information about India's air defense system, especially its radar equipment, in the border area. But they cautioned that this did not mean Pakistan was planning any aggressive military action. ''I wouldn't conclude they are planning anything,'' said Jasjit Singh, director of the Institute for Strategic and Defense Studies and a former Indian Air Force officer. ''I hope we will be sensible too and keep firm control on our response. There is a lot of bitterness on both sides now. We need to maintain detached engagement with Pakistan, but at this point it would be unrealistic'' to try and restart bilateral negotiations.

In describing the incident Wednesday, Pakistani officials asserted that two Indian jets had intruded in midafternoon into Pakistani airspace near the Atlantique wreckage site, along the border between India's Gujarat State and Pakistan's Sindh Province, and were then fired upon by Pakistan. None of the aircraft was hit. One official said surface-to-air missiles were used, but other Pakistani sources said anti-aircraft guns were fired. Officials said they had no knowledge of any Indian helicopters being in the vicinity. ''Two Indian jet fighters tried to enter this area but were forced to run after we fired at them,'' said Brigadier Rashid Qureshi, a Pakistani military spokesman who was accompanying journalists to view crash wreckage on the Pakistani side of the border. India and Pakistan both claim that the Atlantique shootdown occurred over their own territory. U.S. and Indian television journalists traveling in one helicopter said the aircraft shook severely and a flash appeared in the air, suggesting a missile had been fired at it. The trio of helicopters dove low to the ground for protection and then returned to a local air base without harm, aborting their mission to display Atlantique wreckage on Indian soil.

In New Delhi, meanwhile, officials took elaborate pains to show that the Atlantique had crashed about seven miles (11 kilometers) inside India, using graphics and maps that detailed a desolate area of marshes and creeks. They said it was possible some wreckage had fallen inside Pakistan because it was scattered over a wide area. But Pakistani officials insisted that the plane had been shot down at least one mile inside Pakistan. They suggested Wednesday that during several hours after it crashed, before India alerted Pakistan that the shooting had occurred, Indian helicopters landed at the site, picked up some of the debris and deliberately moved it to Indian territory.

Relations between Pakistan and India reached their tensest level in nearly 30 years between May and July, when Indian troops battled Pakistani-based fighters who had invaded a mountainous border area in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The fighters, who Pakistan insisted were autonomous Kashmiri rebels, eventually withdrew after the Clinton administration placed pressure on Islamabad. Since the border conflict ended, serious violence has erupted in the populated areas of Indian Kashmir, where armed insurgents have attacked several military installations and killed more than 20 people. The insurgents, who are backed by Pakistan, have been waging a decade-long campaign to free southern Kashmir from Indian control. Northern Kashmir is controlled by Pakistan, and the two sectors are divided by a 450-mile Line of Control.

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