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IAF to Pak rescue
- First joint action by neighbours' forces

New Delhi, March 5: Pakistani troops in Congo called in Indian Air Force helicopter gunships for close air support on Tuesday to craft an exemplary tale of South Asian solidarity that has been marred by charges that civilians were targeted in the embattled African nation.

'The Indians and the Pakistanis operated in perfect harmony. There was no problem at all,' UN peacekeeping sources told The Telegraph over phone from Congo.

'All assets of the Indian Air Force are safe,' they said. The Indian Air Force contingent based in Goma that was deployed in July last year has five Mi-17 transport helicopters and four Mi-25 (picture above) helicopter gunships.

Three of the gunships have been in continuous use but as a routine at least one gunship accompanies ground troops on aggressive 'peace enforcement' operations and even for cordon and search operations against warring Hema and Lendu militia.

Air headquarters in New Delhi have sought a report from the Indian contingent on the operations in Ituri province in the north east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. This was the first time that Indian and Pakistani forces mounted a joint attack. The troops had undergone a short training programme in joint combat operations before being deployed into the battlezone.

An Indian aviation contingent led by Group Captain D.S. Ahluwalia based in Goma has deployed three Mi-25 helicopter gunships that are operating with Pakistani troops in operations that began this week. But for the first time since Ahluwalia's contingent was deployed in July last year, it went into combat with the Pakistanis, sources in Goma said.

'The Pakistani troops were on a seek-and-destroy mission against a militia headquarters. They came under heavy fire and sought air support. IAF helicopters have been accompanying the troops continuously but we actually saw joint combat with them on Tuesday,' the sources said.

The air element was called in to support troops from the Pakistan Army's 21 Punjab Regiment. The Indians and Pakistanis are part of the UN's 'Blue Helmets' (peacekeepers) and were attacking a village named Loga where nine soldiers of the Bangladeshi contingent were killed on February 25.

The Pakistani infantry troops were flown to Loga, some 30 km north of Bunia, the headquarters of Ituri province, in Indian Air Force Mi-17 transport helicopters. In the seek-and-destroy mission against a base of the Lendu tribal militia of the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI), the troops ran into a firefight that lasted more than three hours. The UN troops were fired at from hills around the village and they asked for air support. An Mi-25 gunship was flown in from Goma.

'As we were withdrawing to a new position, the militia aimed rockets and were closing in on us when an Indian attack helicopter came in,' Ihtibar Khan, one of two injured Pakistani soldiers, was quoted as telling a South African newspaper. Khan is in a military hospital in South Africa.

The Indians and Pakistanis and 16 other nations that have contributed troops in Congo are operating under the 'Chapter VII' mandate of 'peace enforcement' (as distinct from peacekeeping). This is the UN's largest military mission.

UN's officials for MONUC (the UN mission in Congo), responding to allegations that 20 civilians including women and children were among the casualties in Loga, have said that militia were using civilians as 'human shields'.

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