India’s defence chief General Bipin Rawat, his wife, and 11 other people have been killed after a military helicopter they were travelling in crashed in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has said.
The IAF said in a Twitter post the “tragic accident” took place near the town of Coonoor at noon (06:30 GMT) on Wednesday.
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The Russian-made Mi-17V5 helicopter was on its way from an air force base to the Defence Services Staff College when it crashed. The reason for the crash was not immediately known and authorities said they have opened an investigation.
The air force said one officer, Group Captain Varun Singh, survived and is being treated in a military hospital.
Reporting from New Delhi, Al Jazeera’s Elizabeth Puranam said the trip to the Defence Services Staff College “was not supposed to be a very long ride but this is a very mountainous region, with a lot of forests”.
Videos broadcast on Indian news channels showed the helicopter in flames in a densely forested area near the college as locals tried to put out the fire and remove bodies from the wreckage.
#WATCH | Latest visuals from the spot (between Coimbatore and Sulur) where a military chopper crashed in Tamil Nadu. CDS Gen Bipin Rawat, his staff and some family members were in the chopper.
(Video Source: Locals involved in search and rescue operation) pic.twitter.com/YkBVlzsk1J
— ANI (@ANI) December 8, 2021
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that Rawat was an “outstanding soldier” and a “true patriot” who greatly contributed to modernising the country’s armed forces and security apparatus.
“His insights and perspectives on strategic matters were exceptional. His passing away has saddened me deeply,” Modi said.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said Rawat “served the country with exceptional courage and diligence”.
Archrival Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, expressed his condolences on the “tragic death” of Rawat and his wife, its government said in a tweet.
Rawat, 63, was India’s first chief of defence staff, a position the Indian government established in 2019 and which he assumed last year after retiring as army chief.
He was considered close to Prime Minister Modi and was an adviser to the Ministry of Defence.
His primary task was to overhaul the military, which has struggled to modernise and improve coordination among the army, navy and air force.
Hoping for the safety of CDS General Bipin Rawat, his wife and others onboard the chopper.
Prayers for speedy recovery.
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) December 8, 2021
Defence analyst Harsha Kakar, who has also served as a major general in the Indian army, told Al Jazeera that Rawat’s death was “a setback … in terms of the modernisation of the forces”.
Delhi-based defence analyst and author Pravin Sawhney told Al Jazeera that General Rawat’s military initiatives would now be “stalled”.
“Whether they are reviewed or what happens to them is what needs to be seen,” said Sawhney.
The defence chief hailed from a military family, with several generations serving in the Indian armed forces.
The general, who had four decades of service behind him, has commanded forces in Indian-administered Kashmir and along the Line of Actual Control bordering China.
In 2015, Rawat oversaw Indian “surgical strikes” into neighbouring Myanmar, when para-commandos entered the country to attack Naga rebels who had ambushed and killed Indian troops.
In 2017, he awarded a gallantry medal to an army officer who had tied a civilian to the front of his vehicle in Kashmir, where rebels are fighting Indian rule. The incident sparked controversy within India and outside, with rights groups saying the officer used the man as a human shield against stone-throwing protesters.
Rawat said the officer’s actions were within the rules because the army was facing a “dirty war” in the disputed region and had to fight using “innovative” ways.
Last month, he triggered another controversy by saying on television that Kashmir residents are offering to “lynch terrorists themselves” and that it was a “very positive sign”. Lynchings are illegal under Indian law. He did not provide any evidence to support his statement.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, and both claim the entire Himalayan territory.
Rawat earlier survived a helicopter crash in 2015 in the northeast state of Nagaland.
The type of military transport helicopter that crashed on Wednesday, Mi-17V5, is widely used in India by the army and ministers when visiting defence locations.
In 2017, an Mi-17V5 helicopter crashed in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, killing seven military personnel.
Bilal Kuchay contributed reporting from New Delhi, India.