Conflict in Kashmir: Indian top gun is nation's hate figure

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The Independent Online
THE SHELL howled through the valley and slammed into the red boulders a hundred or so metres away. A cloud of red dust puffed into the air and was swiftly dispersed by the breeze blowing off the icy heights and down the gorge towards Skardu and, eventually, the plains of Pakistan.

A few hundred metres away, twisted bits of wreckage strewn over the barren hillsides was all that was left of the MiG-27 of Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja, of the 33rd Wing of the Indian Air Force. His jet, the Pakistanis claim, was shot down with a surface-to-air missile at 11.32am, local time, on Thursday. Twisting through the air, Sqn Ldr Ahuja managed to eject and his jet spiralled into the ground, 10,000ft up in the Karakoram range of the Himalaya, five miles into Pakistani territory and in the middle of one of the most remote and rugged battlefields on earth. He did not survive.

Seventeen minutes earlier, the Pakistanis claim they shot down Sqn Ldr Ahuja's comrade, also in a MiG-27. He, too, managed to eject from his jet - but safely. He was immediately taken prisoner.

A few miles from where Sqn Ldr Ahuja's jet had spread its metal entrails among the rubble is a barren, black ridge where the Indians are entrenched. Their positions look directly down the steep gorge that the Indus cuts through the mountains. And it was from these positions that the solitary shell had been hurled at us.

At an army post near by, the Pakistani soldiers proudly displayed the dead pilot's ejector seat and equipment laid out in neat rows on the helipad of the "Fighting Fives" - the fifth battalion of the Northern Light Infantry. The dead man's flying gloves and pistol holster, both marked with his name, lay on the concrete. The details of Sqn Ldr Ahuja's life were laid out with appalling pathos. The tattered identity card revealed he was 5ft 4in tall, with black hair and eyes. He had celebrated his 36th birthday seven days ago.

Brigadier-General Sial looked at the details carefully and then, aware of what we were thinking, turned and said: "As a man and a brother human being, I feel a tragedy. But as a Muslim and a Pakistani..."

In the village of Mashang, about six miles short of the border, Brigadier- General Sial showed us damage that he claimed had been done by raiding Indian jets. There had been more shelling this morning, he said, and during the night.

Menace stank in the air.

The troops manning a series of gun emplacements dug into the rough screes above the thick, brown, fast-flowing River Indus said that two Indian jets had strafed the village on Wednesday and that they expected further attacks. Under their canopies, the 135mm artillery pieces gleamed in the sunlight.

The village, not more than a handful of rough stone and mud huts and a series of steeply terraced fields linked by narrow paths and bubbling water channels, is now practically deserted. Those who remain, taking cover from the intermittent shelling in riverside caves, were defiant, although how far they had been coached by the soldiers all around us was difficult to tell.

"India signs a peace treaty with us and then attacks us. Vajpayee [the Indian Prime Minister] is Satan," said Syed Ahmed Shah, a 54-year-old farmer. His wife and children have fled the village, which is at an altitude of nearly 10,000ft, for the relative safety of Skardu, 85 miles away.

"Alhumdillalah [praise be to God], the shelling hasn't killed anyone yet this year," he said. "Last year we lost people but this year it just makes our lives difficult. The children can't go to school. We can't tend our crops and no one brings us food."

No doubt on the Indian side of the border - or the "Line of Control" as the Pakistanis prefer to call it - there are thousands of other villagers telling a similar story.

We climbed back in the old Russian helicopter that had whisked us up the gorge to the crash-site, flying low over the River Indus to escape the gales that engulf the white tops of the mountains. Half an hour later we were staggering under the downdraft of the rotor blades on the dusty strip in Skardu, sunburnt and parched.

At the whitewashed headquarters of Pakistan's "Indus Sector" brigade, a clean-cut young man leaning against the wooden veranda was pointed out to us. He was the captured pilot who had successfully ejected from his downed MiG. He looked relaxed as he lay back in the sun with a Pakistani army jacket over his blue Indian overalls. With his shy smile and thick black hair, he was an unlikely-looking hate figure for an entire nation.

But that is what Flight Lieutenant Nachi Keta has become.