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August 12, 1999
India steps on the diplomatic gas
Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
India has stepped up diplomatic efforts to contain the fallout of the downing of a Pakistani Navy plane over Gujarat on Tuesday.
Senior officials of the external affairs ministry today met the envoys of the United States, the European Union, Japan and a few other Western nations. Tomorrow, the officials are due to meet the envoys of China and other countries.
"We are explaining what actually happened," said a spokesman. "Besides briefing the foreign envoys in New Delhi, our missions abroad are briefing the governments there."
Though the external affairs ministry denies it, India does appear to be on the defensive with the bulk of the wreckage of the Bregeut Atlantique aircraft being found on the Pakistani side of the border.
Another official admitted that the going is tough. "It is a little difficult explaining this sudden lack of restraint on our part and the need to actually shoot down the aircraft," he said.
It is being said that if India had tolerated 52 air intrusions this year, what made this 53rd intrusion different?
Sources at Air Headquarters had admitted that intruding on each other's airspace was almost routine and both sides do it regularly. "They do it and we do it, and so far there has never been any shooting," a source said.
The IAF maintains that the Atlantique was shot down because its intrusion was so blatant as to be detected by the interceptors. "The earlier intruders would flee the moment our jets scrambled," said the source. "But this plane refused and then took evasive action, leaving us with little choice."
A retired military officer, who did not want to be named, saw two possible reasons for the shooting. "First, after Kargil, our officers and men are extremely tense. Nothing is being left to chance. So it is likely that this time the IAF was really worried and the pilots a bit nervous and so decided not to take any chances," he said.
"The second reason," he said, "is probably revenge."
During the recent conflict in Kargil, the Pakistani intruders had downed a MiG-27. And the pilot, Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja, who bailed out and parachuted into Pakistan, was shot dead by his captors. The murder raised the hackles of IAF personnel. "This could be the IAF's way of sending a message across to the Pakistani side," he said.
A Pakistani military officer too has claimed that the IAF shot down the Atlantique to avenge the downing of the MiG-27 and a Mi-17 helicopter, that claimed four lives, in Kargil.
But the retired Indian officer blamed Pakistan for precipitating the new crisis. "It was stupid of them to send a plane into India so soon after Kargil, when our men are very cautious and anti-Pakistan. At such a time, one cannot trust Pakistan and it is better to be safe than sorry," he pointed out.
But of course, Pakistan still insists the plane was shot over its airspace, pointing to the bulk of the wreckage being on its soil as proof. But India has strenuously denied this claim, insisting that the Pakistani aircraft had intruded into Indian airspace.
"Whether the bulk of the wreckage is here or there depends on many factors. The point is that the aircraft had intruded into Indian airspace and after it refused to heed the warnings of IAF interceptors, the IAF had no choice but to shoot it down," the external affairs ministry spokesman said.
He also insisted that the Atlantique could not have strayed accidentally into India. "The aircraft flew into India and turned around in a circular path going back. It did this twice and the third time it intruded into India. Such deliberate movements suggest that it was on a surveillance mission rather than an accidental straying into Indian airspace," he pointed out.
The spokesman refused to read any meaning into the statement by his US counterpart, James Rubin, that both India and Pakistan had violated each other's airspace and should exercise restraint.
"One way of exercising restraint is not to intrude into Indian airspace," the spokesman said.
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