Pakistan fires at Indian aircraft as tensions boil on subcontinent

Sides trade accusations

Pakistanis reinforce zone where India downed plane

August 12, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW DELHI, India -- Pakistan fired a surface-to-air missile at an Indian aircraft yesterday, keeping tensions between the belligerent neighbors at a high boil.

The missile, which missed its target, was aimed in the direction of two jet fighters and three helicopters flying near the wreckage of a Pakistani naval surveillance plane that was shot down by India on Tuesday morning, killing the 16 people on board.

Pakistani soldiers near the wreckage have set up mortars, anti-aircraft missiles and machine guns -- all pointing toward the border with India.

Brig. Rashid Qureshi, Pakistan's chief military spokesman, said one of the jets had been the target. India said that a helicopter ferrying reporters to the crash site was the intended quarry.

The incident occurred as both nations eagerly displayed huge chunks of mangled wreckage near their respective sides of a disputed border area, each insisting that the debris they possessed conclusively proved that the naval plane had been flying above their nation's airspace.

To explain why Pakistan had a share of the wreckage, Indian officials said the 90-foot naval plane turned back toward the border once it had been hit by an air-to-air missile, and that some of the pieces had made it home.

"When you shoot an aircraft, it doesn't drop like a stone; it glides," said Group Capt. D. N. Ganesh of the Indian air force.

To explain why India had a portion of the damage in hand, Pakistani officials said the Indians had arrived at the wreckage first and absconded with assorted rubble.

"They stole a few pieces of the plane so they could fool the world," said Cmdr. Roshan Khayal of the Pakistani navy.

Whatever the case, it was clear that sections of the downed plane, a French-built Breguet Atlantic-1, were strewn across a wide area and that much of the detritus was buried deep in the marshy ground of a shifting tidal channel known as Sir Creek. No bodies have been recovered.

Sir Creek, which lies between the western Indian state of Gujarat and the southern Pakistani state of Sindh, is one of many contested boundaries between the nations. The site is about 60 miles southeast of the Pakistani port of Karachi.

India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, have fought three wars with each other since they won independence in 1947. The second of these conflicts, in 1965, began in the Sir Creek area with both sides claiming that the other was intruding.

Recently, the two nations seemed on the brink of another war as Pakistani-backed infiltrators seized mountaintop positions within the Indian state of Kashmir. While India's military response was intense, using air power and a huge troop deployment, New Delhi won world approval for its restraint in not sending its forces across the so-called Line of Control into the Pakistani-held part of Kashmir.

Yesterday, despite the fact that one of its MiG-21 fighter jets had destroyed the far-slower, propeller-driven Atlantic-1, India attempted to make the case that it had again used restraint before attacking what it said was a spy plane.

According to Ganesh, two Indian jets intercepted the Pakistani plane 10 miles inside Indian territory and repeatedly instructed its pilot to land at an Indian air base. One of the MiGs flew abreast of the Atlantic-1 and waggled its wings before veering away, a signal that the slower plane was to follow it down.

Instead, the Pakistani plane combatively flew toward the MiG, Ganesh said. "It was like the Pakistani pilot was trying to play chicken, and that's when he got shot."

The Pakistani account is much different. According to Khayal, the plane was on a routine training flight for junior pilots and never left Pakistani airspace.

"How could this propeller plane make an aggressive move against a jet?" he said. "This was simply murder, and we have lost 16 of our brave soldiers."

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