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May 26, 1999


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IAF launches second wave of strikes

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The Indian air force stated it had carried out a second wave of air strikes against the militants who are holed up on the mountainous heights on the Indian side of the Line of Control.

"The second wave of air strikes were successful and the aircraft hit the designated targets," said an air force official, adding, "The second wave was carried out around noon, while the first wave of air strikes was carried out in the morning. Both achieved the results they set out for."

The official once again refused to comment on the number or type of aircraft used or the number of sorties flown. Earlier, the air force had declared that the air strikes had been carried out in Batalik, Drass, Mashkosh and Kargil sectors. However, the target areas of the second strikes were not yet known.

The morning operations, which were carried out at 0630 hours and 0830 hours IST, were carried out by Mi-17 helicopter gunships backed by jet fighters.

The militants are holed up on a few mountain peaks, four to six kilometres into India. The militants have been seen along an 80 kilometre wide stretch from Drass in the west to Batalik in the east. Kargil lies between Drass and Batalik.

Map of Jammu and Kashmir

Earlier, the air operations, using fighters and helicopters, will continue till the army re-occupies the Indian positions, defence sources said.

The army was closing in to clear the area of intruders, the defence ministry said.

The armed air action in the Drass-Kargil-Batalik sectors will continue till the Pakistan-aided militants, who had infiltrated into the Indian side of the LoC, are evicted and the army re-occupies Indian territory, it said.

Air Commodore Subhash Bhojwani, director, operations (offensive), at the defence ministry briefing.
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Briefing the media, Brigadier Mohan Bhandari, deputy director general, military operations, and Air Commodore Subhash Bhojwani, director, operations (offensive), said the Indian action was well within its own territory and was carried out on well-identified positions.

''There is no clearance at present to go across the border but we reserve that right if there is further provocation. Should there be any direct or indirect interference in our operations by the Pakistani army or air force, the Indian defence forces have been authorised to take appropriate action,'' Air Commodore Bhojwani said.

Brigadier Bhandari said, ''The situation of intruders is becoming increasingly desperate and untenable with their escape routes cut off.''

He said as per fresh intelligence inputs, more than 160 intruders had been killed. He claimed that regular Pakistan soldiers were among those killed. "We know that regular Pakistani soldiers are in the group due to the existing command and control structure, which clearly shows army logistics and involvement. Mere militants cannot mount such an operation on their own," he said.

The army has lost 17 soldiers while 14 are missing. At least 90 Indian soldiers have been injured since the operation against the infiltrators began last week, he said.

However, army sources said the figures are misleading and Indian casualties are much higher. "I cannot say exactly how many have been killed on our side, but certainly the figure is much higher than what has been put out," they said. "It is the high casualties on our side that have forced the air strikes."

Replying to questions, Air Commodore Bhojwani did not give details about the type of aircraft used or the number of sorties that were carried out or the ammunition used.

He said the air strikes were carried out on targets at heights of 17,000 to 18,000 feet. Until a battle damage reconnaissance was conducted it would be difficult to know the results of the attacks. But ground troops had indicated on wireless that the mission had been successful. Detailed ground reports were awaited.

The air commodore said the aim of the IAF was to help the army in flushing out the infiltrators. ''We are well clear of the LoC. So there is no question of damage on the other side,'' he said in reply to a question.

In a statement, the defence ministry justified the action on four counts and said any escalation of this conflict would be entirely the responsibility of Pakistan.

''It would be in the interest of Pakistan not only to stop aiding the militants by its agencies, but actually ensure their withdrawal and bring the ground position to status quo ante,'' it said.

The statement said the action was forced upon India ''because the infiltrators are in considerable strength and consist of a large number of well-trained mercenaries''.

They are not only ''supported directly by the Pakistani army but Pakistani army regulars are believed to be participating along with them. More than 600 infiltrators have taken up positions of advantage in very high ridges which are difficult to neutralise by ground action alone.''

According to the defence ministry, if not contained at this stage, Pakistan would have been encouraged to extend its operations further. Delayed reaction would have called for a more severe action, possibly increasing the areas as well as the scope of operations.

''If the infiltration is not arrested and the infiltrators are not evicted, the alignment of the LoC could well be altered to our disadvantage. The security of our vital ground line communication from Srinagar to Leh via Kargil will be under threat. If militants continue to hold the heights, infiltration in this area would increase,'' the ministry said.

It said the Indian forces had been directed to take action on its side of the LoC. Should there be any direct or indirect interference in the operations by the Pakistani army or its air force, the Indian defence forces have been authorised to take appropriate action, the ministry said.

 MI-17: The gunship choppers suspected to have been deployed
 Pic: Touching the Sky, via Alok Agrawal or Bharat
Both fighters and helicopter have been taking part in the operations.

An IAF aircraft in its own airspace had been attacked last week despite prior notice to the Pakistani authorities.

With the militants occupying the heights and Indian soldiers having no cover on the completely open slopes, the latter are exposed to the fire of the militants as they try to climb upwards to engage the enemy.

The other plan of completely encircling the militants is also fraught with risk since Indian troops can only encircle the militants from three sides. To encircle from the fourth side would mean intruding Pakistani territory across the Line of Control, something that is not possible. Army officials had indicated as much when they said yesterday that regaining the heights would be a long-drawn affair. Hence the need for air strikes.

Following the air strikes, the Pakistani embassy in New Delhi has issued a one-line statement that any threat to the Pakistani security would be met by a fitting reply.

The Srinagar airport was sealed and all civilian flights were cancelled, top army and air force officials said.

Sources said the air strikes were ''undertaken primarily to ensure that the IAF has the flexibility to operate within its airspace without hindrance''. Last week an IAF plane flying in its own airspace was attacked.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had spoken to his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharief regarding the infiltrators.

Speaking to reporters in Pondicherry yesterday, Vajpayee said India had informed Pakistan that it would clear its territory. Asked if India would resort to air strikes, he had said all possible steps would be taken to clear the territory of intruders.

Vajpayee, however, did not specifically tell him about the air strikes, an official spokesperson said in New Delhi.

The Indian Army has said that over 600 infiltrators had intruded four to six kilometres into India territory at Batalik, Kaksar, Drass and Mashkoh.

While the Indian Army said it was in 'firm control' of the situation, senior officers had conceded that evicting the infiltrators would be a time-consuming exercise given the harsh terrain where they had taken up positions.

Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has urged both sides to call a ceasefire, a UN spokesman said in New York.

He has called on the parties ''to exercise restraint and cease the fighting which has reportedly caused a number of civilian casualties and displaced others from their villages in the area.''

Major General J J Singh, additional director general, military operations, yesterday said ''the infiltrators were running out of logistic support on the icy heights and it would be difficult for them to hold on to the Indian positions indefinitely''.

Though the army did not have indications that such a large operation was being launched from this sector, it had reacted faster than the intruders had anticipated, he said.

The infiltrations had been made at heights of 15,000 to 17,000 feet. As per the army assessment, 200 to 250 militants infiltrated at Batalik on May 8, 80 to 100 at Kaksar on May 12, 60 to 80 at Drass on May 10 and 200 to 250 at Mashkosh on May 14.

Amberish K Diwanji, George Iype in New Delhi, Mukhtar Ahmed in Srinagar and UNI


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