INDIAN AIR force jets shot down a Pakistani naval patrol aircraft yesterday, killing all 16 aboard, after claiming it had strayed over the international border. But Pakistani naval sources categorically denied that the French-built Atlantique plane, designed for anti-submarine patrolling and reconnaissance, had invaded Indian airspace.
Angry Pakistani government bureaucrats summoned India's envoy in Islamabad and issued the strongest protest. Last night the Pakistan cabinet met in an emergency session to discuss the incident, reserving the right to take appropriate "retaliatory" action.
The shooting down of the aircraft by Indian MiG fighters will increase tension, still high since Pakistan-backed militants pulled back from their positions near Kargil in Kashmir. The Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, ordered up to 1,000 intruders to withdraw from Indian territory under intense pressure from the international community, which feared the fractious neighbours could launch all-out war. Yesterday's incident came after three successive days of audacious attacks by large groups of militants on Indian army posts in Kashmir, despite Pakistan's pledge to pull back.
The Indian air force claimed the Pakistani aircraft encroached up to 10km into Indian airspace over Kori Creek waterway, 200km south-east of Karachi. Two Indian MiG-21 jet fighters were scrambled from the Naliya airbase in Gujarat as soon as military air traffic controllers identified the intrusion. An air force spokesman said the Pakistani plane had been photographing sensitive positions on the border.
The Indian pilots apparently signalled that the Pakistani plane should land, but it turned as if to engage the MiGs and was shot down with an air-to-air missile while it was 4km inside Indian territory. The pilot needed no permission to shoot, and the air force said the response was entirely appropriate to the two-minute intrusion by an aircraft capable of carrying torpedoes. Defence experts say the plane, converted from civilian use, is usually unarmed. Wreckage from the reconnaissance aircraft came down 2km inside Indian territory, according to Delhi, in the Rann of Kutch, a marshy area surrounded by desert where the border is well defined.
Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Sartaj Aziz, said the aircraft had been on a routine training mission, and had not crossed into Indian airspace.
The wreckage was discovered two hours after Karachi military air controllers spotted the Indian jets. Journalists would be taken to the scene, which was 2km from the border on the Pakistani side, said Mr Aziz. Even if the Pakistan aircraft had strayed into Indian airspace accidentally, he added, it should have been given a warning.
Officials in Islamabad were last night writing to the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, and others in the international community outlining the details of the incident.
George Fernandes, the Indian Defence Minister, dismissed the Pakistani claims, though there was no immediate detailed response from his government. However, in recent days the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has ruled out renewed discussions with Pakistan in the current climate.
Defence analysts in Delhi said it was likely that Mr Sharif's administration would use the incident against India.
"Pakistan was morally beaten after Kargil ended," said Savite Pande, of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysts. "They are bound to say to the world, `Look what India is doing to us now'. Against the backdrop of incursions and the infiltration into Kargil, it ... must be highly charged. We can't rule out further incidents in the days to come."
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies