Pakistan fires on Indian helicopters

TENSION BETWEEN India and Pakistan threatened to boil over yesterday after Indian helicopters were fired upon by a Pakistani surface-to-air missile battery, apparently in retaliation for the shooting down on Tuesday of one of its naval surveillance planes with the loss of 16 servicemen.

India said that three of its helicopters, which were 15 miles inside its own territory, were forced to take emergency evasive action. They had been travelling to view the wreckage of the Pakistani aircraft.

Pakistan admitted firing a missile, but said it had been in response to an attempted intrusion by two Indian jets flanked by helicopters, which had fled the scene immediately. The latest incident demonstrated that the international appeals for calm appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

The United States had earlier pleaded for both countries to adopt maximum restraint and hinted it might send an envoy to both capitals to reduce tension. Both countries mounted a propaganda offensive yesterday, producing video footage and wreckage from the French-built Dassault Atlantique plane. Wreckage was recovered from each side of the border dividing Pakistani Sindh and Indian Gujarat. Delhi maintained that the site of the debris proved conclusively the aircraft had invaded India airspace on a "spying mission".

But Islamabad said the discovery of parts on the marshy land in Pakistani territory clearly showed India had crossed the border to fire on an unarmed plane on a routine training mission.

The incident raised temperatures, which had barely cooled since 10 weeks of fighting in Indian-run Kashmir was ended last month. Pakistan ordered the withdrawal of Islamic militants only after intense diplomatic pressure from the international community.

India's cabinet committee on security, headed by the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, met yesterday for 45 minutes to discuss the incident. Defence staff showed the committee members wreckage of the Pakistani aircraft retrieved on Indian soil. Group Captain D N Ganesh told the cabinet committee that the wreckage was spread over a wide area and that the stricken plane had overflown the weaving border twice as it fell and broke up, explaining why some bits ended in Pakistan.

Pakistan's Navy in Karachi, which maintained the flight was over home territory when attacked, said Indian helicopters had stolen across the border to retrieve some of the debris. "It took about two or three hours before we found the wreckage," said a Pakistan Navy spokesman. "So there is a chance that they might have taken some to their side."

The US called for both sides to use "restraint and dialogue" to resolve their differences. The Pentagon said that an envoy might be sent to heal the rift. The spokesman Kenneth Bacon said: "We have in the past sent emissaries to both [countries]. If we believe it will be useful, we will do so again."

After the latest incident last night, the dispatch of an envoy seems even more likely. Pakistan's senior military spokesman, Brigadier Rashid Qureshi, speaking at Badin, Sindh, near the Atlantique's crash site, was unrepentant. "Two Indian jet fighters tried to enter this area but were forced to run after we fired at them."

Leading article, Review, page 3