Indian Copter Blasted Over Kashmir

DRAS, India -- An Indian helicopter gunship was shot down Friday by Pakistani forces using a U.S.-built Stinger missile, a defense ministry official said.

Air Commodore Subash Bhojwani said all four people on board the Russian-built Mi-17 were killed as it crashed in Indian territory, about eight kilometers from the cease-fire line that divides Kashmir between the tense nuclear neighbors.

An organization representing dozens of Kashmiri separatist groups, however, claimed its guerrillas downed the Indian gunship.

The latest incident came a day after the Pakistan army said it shot down two Indian MiG fighter jets. Pakistan says it has detained one of the pilots.

Bhojwani said the missile was fired by intruders entrenched on the mountains of Dras, in the area of disputed Kashmir controlled by India. He said it was apparent that the missile was fired by Pakistani soldiers.

Since Wednesday, fighting has escalated in Kashmir as Indian jets and helicopter gunships flew up to 50 sorties to hit the mountain positions occupied by what India describes as infiltrators.

The United States, Russia and other countries have suggested restraint by the world's two latest nuclear powers f which have already fought three wars f fearing Kashmir could become the flashpoint for another deadly conflict.

In a statement issued in the Pakistani capital, Syed Salahuddin, chairman of the United Jehad Council, said: "We shot down this helicopter." He leads an umbrella group claiming to represent different Islamic secessionist groups operating in Indian-governed Kashmir.

Nearly one-third of the 600 militants who had intruded into the Indian territory have been killed since the army launched its operation since the first week of May, said Major General J.J. Singh, a spokesman in New Delhi.

Singh said Indian forces foiled an attempt by nearly 60 Muslim militants to capture an Indian post close to the Line of Control, as the cease-fire line in Kashmir is known. He also reported troop movements by Pakistan across the unofficial border and said the Indian forces "were in an appropriate state of alert."

At least 24 Indian soldiers have been killed and 131 others wounded since early this month, when Indian soldiers first attacked militants occupying uninhabited mountains near Kargil.

On Friday, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee met with Cabinet ministers and military commanders to review the situation in Kashmir. Details of their meeting were not immediately known.

Pakistan marked the anniversary of its nuclear tests on Friday, but Reuters reported the events in Islamabad were overshadowed by the third day of Indian airstrikes against pro-Pakistan guerrillas in disputed Kashmir.

The celebrations of what Islamabad regarded as its day of glory also were dimmed by Pakistan's announcement that it had shot down two intruding Indian jet fighters on Thursday.

Pakistan blames India for escalating tensions by its first use of air power against Moslem guerrillas, but has dismissed fears of a full-blown clash between the two new nuclear powers.

Pakistan held a series of nuclear tests last May in response to similar tests by rival India. The tests brought international sanctions against both countries that were later eased.

Both countries face world pressure to adhere to a non-proliferation regime, including signing the international Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or CTBT, and settling their dispute over Kashmir.

By conducting the tests, Pakistan angered the United States and other major powers. But the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund later offered to help Pakistan overcome its economic problems with a $5 billion bailout, most of it in debt repayment rescheduling.

Maleeh Lodhi, editor of The News newspaper, said the diplomatic and economic costs of Pakistan's nuclearization were secondary compared to the country's security compulsions.

"But we have also seen that the international community has moved away from a policy of censure and sanctions to a policy of constructive engagement, and this is how it should be," she said.