Army Helicopter Crashes, 4 Killed

Monday, October 8th 2007, 9:48 am
By: News On 6

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) _ A helicopter carrying aides to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf crashed Monday as the Pakistani leader flew to Kashmir. Though blamed on a technical fault, the accident revived concern for Musharraf's safety as his war with Islamic militants intensifies.

The army said four people died when the craft attempted an emergency landing, but the U.S.-allied leader was never in danger. Still, with new fighting against extremists raging along the Afghan border, it was a reminder that Musharraf has survived several assassination attempts.

Musharraf's entourage was aboard three helicopters on a trip to the Pakistani portion of the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir to commemorate Monday as the second anniversary of an earthquake that killed nearly 80,000 people.

An army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad, said Musharraf had reached his destination when one of the two accompanying helicopters crashed. State television later broadcast footage of him touring the quake zone.

``The president was in some other chopper and he safely reached where he had to go,'' Arshad said.

The dead included a cameraman for state television, a military intelligence brigadier and two soldiers, officials said. The president's spokesman, Rashid Qureshi, who suffered a burn to his right hand, was among five passengers injured.

The army launched an inquiry into the crash at Mujhoi, a village 12 miles south of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir. Witnesses said two other army helicopters had flown by minutes before the Puma chopper went down.

Resident Naseer Ahmed said the noise of the third craft's engine had suddenly grown louder and the pilots found level ground for an emergency landing. He said several passengers jumped from the helicopter before it hit the ground and exploded in flames.

While there was no indication of hostile fire, the crash refocused attention on the security of Musharraf, who is in the midst of a bitter fight over his bid for a new presidential term and is facing a surge in attacks by militants on the Afghan frontier.

Pakistan's previous military ruler, Gen. Zia-ul Haq, died in an unexplained explosion aboard a Pakistani military aircraft in 1988 along with U.S. Ambassador Arnold L. Raphael and several other top generals.

On Saturday, Musharraf swept a presidential election by national and provincial legislators. The Supreme Court has blocked making the results official until it rules whether he was eligible to run while simultaneously holding the post of army chief.

Musharraf has promised to quit the military if elected. His nominated successor as army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, was promoted Monday to vice chief of the army.

Musharraf, who ousted a civilian government in 1999, says he wants to prolong his presidency to lead the fight against Islamic extremism.

He first threw Pakistan's support behind the U.S.-led war on terrorist groups after the Sept. 11 attacks, but despite the deployment of more than 90,000 Pakistani soldiers along the border with Afghanistan, the militants' grip on the tribal regions has grown tighter.

Five weeks ago, militants abducted more than 230 soldiers in South Waziristan. The militants have executed three of the soldiers.

Heavy fighting erupted last weekend in neighboring North Waziristan, where U.S. officials claim al-Qaida was able to regroup after Musharraf's government signed a truce with local militants last year.

Up to 50 Pakistani soldiers were missing Monday after militants attacked security posts and a foot patrol near the town of Mir Ali, the army said. About 60 suspected militants and 20 soldiers died in two clashes Sunday, it said.

A security official in Miran Shah, the region's main town, said army helicopters and jets bombarded militant positions in several villages Sunday. He said informers told security forces that two low-ranking Arabs with al-Qaida and an Uzbek were among the dead.

About a dozen civilians, including women and children, died when a stray mortar shell struck their home in Mir Ali, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. It was unclear which side fired the mortar.

Arshad, the army spokesman, said security forces only fired at targets from which they were being attacked.

The violence has sharpened domestic criticism of Musharraf's U.S. alliance, which has seen his troops in off-and-on battles with Islamic militants as well as Taliban and al-Qaida fighters who took refuge in Pakistan after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

More than 200 Pakistani soldiers have died in the past three months, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press from the army and other officials.