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May 30, 1999


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'The family is both proud of Nachiketa and concerned about his well-being'

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Amberish K Diwanji in Delhi

Flight Lieutenant K Nachiketa today celebrated his 25th birthday in a place he'd never want to visit again: a Pakistan prison. This young air force officer, captured by the Pakistani security forces after he parachuted across the Line of Control following engine failure in his MiG-21, is reportedly safe and sound. The Indian Air Force is awaiting his handover to the Indian side.

Today, Nachiketa's two sisters left for the Adampur airbase to join their parents who are already there, awaiting the return of their only son. "The sisters and the parents are quite fine, just worried about their son," said Srirama Murthy, father-in-law of Nachiketa's sister Trisandhya. "Right now, the family is both proud of Nachiketa and concerned about his well-being," he added.

Tragically, Nachiketa's colleague, Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja, was not so lucky. Though he too ejected from his missile-hit aircraft, a MiG-27, he was reportedly shot dead on landing across the Line of Control. The post-mortem report spoke of three grievous wounds:

1. There is a penetrating gunshot wound; entry near right ear, exit near the external orifice of left ear.

2. Gunshot wound: entry 2 cm medial to right nipple, exit near left iliac crest damaging internal viscera like liver, intestine and peritonium.

3. Compound comminuted fracture left knee.

"The left knee fracture was probably sustained when he parachuted down, but the gunshots show that he landed alive and was done to death," said Air Vice Marshal S K Malik, director of operations, Air Headquarters.

The IAF has not revealed how it plans to respond to this "cold blooded murder" and has for the present "strongly condemned the action".

But it compared the action to the Kosovo case where three NATO air force jets were shot down and the pilots captured by Yugoslavia. "The three pilots were returned to NATO unharmed even though they were bombing Yugoslavia. Our pilots were only carrying out missions on our side of the border and hence there is no justification for this cruel murder," stated AVM Malik.

The wreckage of the ill-fated helicopter shot down by a Stinger missile fired by the infiltrators is on the verge of being found. The bodies of four more IAF personnel, two officers and two gunners, who were in the helicopter are likely to be brought to Kargil and then to Srinagar today or early tomorrow.

The four men have been identified as Squadron Leader Rajiv Pundir, 37 years old; Flight Lieutenant S Muhilan, 27; Air Sergeant Pilla Venkata Narayan Ravi, 33 (born on August 15, 1965); and Sergeant Raj Kishore Sahu, 28.

The army today lost an officer, Major M Sarvanan of the 1st Bihar Regiment, in hand-to-hand action in the Batalik sector. Leading a company of around 70 to 80 men, his troops encircled around 15 to 20 infiltrators who held a mountain peak and attacked the enemy, claiming five enemy lives.

Meanwhile, Defence Minister George Fernandes continues to embarrass his colleagues and defence officers. Yesterday, Fernandes had declared that air strikes against the intruders had been suspended and only reconnaissance missions were being carried. However, today AVM Malik categorically asserted that no such suspension had been ordered.

"We are carrying out, and will continue to carry out, both reconnaissance missions and air strikes. Over the past 24 hours, due to bad weather, we carried out fewer missions, but we did not suspend them. The number of such air strikes will always vary to ensure that there remains the element of surprise but they will continue till the army achieves its mission of recovering all the lost territory," he declared.

The army asserted that it was closing in on the enemy and though it refused to give a timeframe, its officers exuded confidence of the mission completing soon. "We accept that the intruders are likely to be reinforced but given the altitude and difficult logistics, in the end we will prevail," said Major General J J Singh, additional director general of military operations.

While the Line of Control from Drass to Batalik is at a height of 15,000 to 18,000 feet, on both sides of the mountain peaks, the valleys descend down to 12,000 feet, making it difficult for both sides to sustain the operations.

A source close to military intelligence said that sometime early next week, the army is likely to declared that all the intruders had been driven back and all the territory held by them has been recovered. Air operations too would be stopped save for helicopter missions to support the ground troops, he added.

"While what the army will say will not be wrong, it might be an exaggeration. It is unlikely that all the land right up to the LoC can be recovered so soon. In fact, the closer we get to the LoC, the more difficult it is for us and the easier it is for Pakistan to support and sustain the intruders. So the enemy might still be about half to one kilometre inside. Reclaiming that portion can well take up to September," he warned.

Still, the source said there was nothing to worry about. "Let Pakistan discover the cost of continuously supporting troops in the high mountains, like we do in Siachen. They will find that is better to attack and withdraw rather than attack and hold on. Because holding is very expensive and since our operations will remain on our side of the border, we can then always choose the timing of attack," he added.

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