AP 28-MAY-99 DRAS, India (AP) -- An Indian helicopter gunship was shot down today over the disputed territory of Kashmir, where India's air campaign to dislodge secessionist Islamic militants has escalated tensions between the world's two newest nuclear powers.
India's air force accused Pakistan of
downing the Mi-17 helicopter over the Himalayan territory, which is claimed by both
countries. Pakistan denied the charge, and a Kashmiri militant organization claimed
responsibilty for the attack.
The claim by the United Jehad Council, purportedly backed by Pakistan, could not be independently verified.
The helicopter's downing came despite a generally quiet morning in the skies over the frontier area. For two days, India has launched relentless airstrikes aimed at forcing alleged Pakistani-backed guerrillas from the mountains.
India also demanded the return of pilots whose MiG
fighter jets were downed on Thursday. Pakistan, which claims to have shot down both jets,
said one pilot was killed in the crash and that it was holding the other as a prisoner of
India's military said one MiG-21 was flying over India when it crashed due to mechanical failure. The second plane, a MiG-27, flew in to assist the first pilot and was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.
Journalists, escorted by Pakistani army officials, saw the wreckage of one of the downed MiGs -- including its tail emblazoned with the Indian flag -- strewn over a mountain ridge about seven miles inside Pakistani territory.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. J.J. Singh said 12 soldiers are also missing.
Kashmir has been at the center of two of the three wars that India and Pakistan have fought since their independence in 1947. After both countries tested nuclear weapons last year, world leaders feared an arms race between the South Asian rivals.
The United States, Britain, Russia, Japan, China and
U.N. chief Kofi Annan urged restraint by both nations.
Pakistan pushed hard today for international intervention in the conflict, and a government minister said "two nuclear-armed adversaries are facing each other eyeball to eyeball."
"We hope India will not go beyond a point of no return," said Information Minister Mushahid Hussein.
"If we didn't have the bomb, India would have occupied Kashmir by now," he said. "That's what the bomb means: deterrence for security, for survival, for self-defense."
Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was to
meet today with India's major political parties to seek endorsement for the military
action. He met the day before with Cabinet ministers and military chiefs. The Foreign
Ministry placed blame for the hostilities on Islamabad. "The present situation has
been created entirely because of Pakistan's provocative activities," it said in a
statement Thursday. "Pakistan should realize that such foolhardy ventures against
India will not succeed."
India's National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra tempered the Foreign Office's strong remarks, saying in a television interview that "we don't think the situation will escalate into a general war."
India launched Operation Vijay, or Operation Victory, to evict about 600 guerrillas who seized unoccupied areas in the Indian-held part of Kashmir early this month. India says the infiltrators are Afghan guerrillas and Pakistani soldiers dressed like Islamic militants. Islamabad says it does not know the identity of the intruders.
India says the strikes have all been conducted within its territory, 11/2 miles from the demarcation line, the unofficial border through Kashmir both nations agreed to after the last war.
The private STAR TV channel reported earlier today that the Indian air force had deployed its top fighter jet, the Russian-made Sukhoi, in Kashmir to beef up its firepower.
The Indian government, however, denied the report. Pakistan denounced the alleged deployment of the Su-30s as an escalation of hostilities.
India and Pakistan went to war immediately after
independence over Kashmir. India now controls two-thirds of Kashmir, Pakistan holds nearly
one-third, and China has a tiny portion. India and Pakistan each claim Kashmir in its
Indian and Pakistani soldiers exchange fire along their disputed frontier almost every day. Indian soldiers also frequently open fire to thwart Pakistan-based guerrillas trying to cross into Indian-held areas to fight for independence for Kashmir.