Helicopter Crashes On Musharraf Trip
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Oct. 8 -- A Pakistani army helicopter escorting President Pervez Musharraf on a tour of earthquake reconstruction work in Kashmir crashed Monday, killing four people and injuring five, including the president's spokesman.
The helicopter was flying behind Musharraf's helicopter when the engine caught fire, according to Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan. The Puma helicopter went down about 11:15 a.m. in a remote area.
"It was purely accidental," Khan said.
Killed were a brigadier general, a cameraman for state-run television and two soldiers who were part of Musharraf's security detail. Retired Gen. Rashid Qureshi, Musharraf's spokesman, was injured, but Khan described him as "walking wounded" and said he would make a full recovery.
Musharraf, who was unhurt, did not find out about the crash until he had reached his destination. The helicopter that went down was one of three escorting Musharraf's chopper, and Khan said it had been designated primarily for members of the news media.
"There was no question that Musharraf could have been on that one," Khan said.
Musharraf later went ahead with his scheduled appearances in Muzaffarabad, capital of the mountainous region of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. Exactly two years ago, the area was hit with a devastating earthquake that claimed more than 73,000 lives.
While the government ruled out the possibility of sabotage, the crash was sure to arouse suspicion among conspiracy-minded Pakistanis. The nation's last military ruler, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, died in a still-unexplained plane crash in the summer of 1988. Foul play has long been suspected but not proved.
Musharraf has been the target of several assassination attempts. He narrowly escaped two bomb attacks in 2003, and this summer a man on a rooftop in the garrison city of Rawalpindi fired a submachine gun at the general's plane as it took off from a nearby base. Two antiaircraft guns, which had not been fired, were also recovered from the rooftop.
Monday's crash occurred during a period of deep turbulence in Pakistan. On Saturday, Musharraf won the most votes in a controversial presidential election that was boycotted by the opposition. He could not claim victory, however, because the Supreme Court must still rule on his eligibility to run.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda has stepped up its campaign against Musharraf. In September, the group's leader, Osama bin Laden, devoted an audiotape to the subject of attacking the president. The war in the restive tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan has intensified in recent months following the collapse of two peace deals.
On Monday, 50 Pakistani troops in the tribal area of North Waziristan disappeared during a battle with pro-Taliban fighters, local officials said. Fierce clashes had broken out in the same area over the weekend, and from Sunday morning through late Monday, 60 insurgents and 20 soldiers had been killed, the military said. The fighting began when insurgents attacked a series of military convoys, and the military responded with strikes from helicopter gunships and fighter jets.
A purported Taliban spokesman said that the military was taking higher losses than it was admitting and that insurgents had attacked because they believed the army was moving aggressively in the area. "By the grace of Allah, we have retaliated," Ahmadullah Ahmadi said by telephone from North Waziristan. "But the government will never admit or reveal its losses at the hands of the local Taliban."
Residents in the area said civilians also had been killed.
"Both sides have been using heavy weapons and have taken casualties, but the real targets are the innocent local tribesmen," said Noor Alam, a resident. "The people have suffered a lot."
Taliban fighters in South Waziristan have been holding about 250 soldiers hostage since late August, when they ambushed a convoy and persuaded the troops to lay down their weapons without firing a shot.
Ali reported from Peshawar, Pakistan.