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Viet Cong smoke in helicopter fire

New Delhi, Jan. 30: Indian Air Force investigators probing the January 18 incident in Chhattisgarh in which an Mi 17 was riddled with bullets by suspected Naxalites are studying if the rebels used a Viet Cong-style “false-flag” tactic to lure the helicopter within the range of their firearms.

The Mi 17 1V helicopter was riddled by no less than 18 bullets to its rotors, fuel tank and hydraulic system, was incapacitated in the jungles for more than 24 hours and ran the risk of being destroyed by the rebels.

Police in Chhattisgarh alleged that the aircrew abandoned the chopper leaving behind a seriously injured radio operator, a charge vehemently denied by the IAF that says its crew acted bravely in manoeuvring and landing in the face of gunfire.

The Indian Air Force is also seeking detailed directions from the government for its counter-Naxalite “Operation Triveni” in the wake of the incident because the helicopter was hit even after the police claimed that its landing zone was “sanitised”.

A ballistics analysis of the bullet marks on the superstructure and inside the cabin of the helicopter has concluded that it was targeted by small arms from a distance of less than 500 metres when it was barely 50 metres in the air and descending to land.

A court of inquiry ordered by the air headquarters is yet to submit its report but a preliminary assessment has concluded that the helicopter took flak even after three signals from the police that it was cleared to land.

The first two were over radio transmitter — when the helicopter was requested to take off from Jagdalpur where it was based — to evacuate casualties and when it was flying to Temeliwara. The third was a smoke signal, used by ground forces to tell aircraft that the zone was safe to land in.

Viet Cong guerrillas fighting US forces in the early 1970s have been known to use smoke signals pretending to be friendly ground forces to lure American Huey helicopters to land and then attack them. This tactic came to be known as the “false-flag”.

The aircrew flying the IAF’s Mi 17 assumed, because of the first two signals, that the Chhattisgarh Armed Police that was in the encounter with the Maoists on the ground in Temeliwada was indicating that the spot was clear for the helicopter to land in.

According to the standard operating procedures for Op Triveni, IAF helicopters will take off from base (Jagdalpur) only after they are assured that the destination helipad is safe. On January 18, the helicopter was requested past 4pm, late in the day for a sortie in fading light for a night-blind Mi 17.

The Indian Air Force wants to bridge the “trust deficit” with the state administrations through a commitment that standard operating procedures outlining how ground forces should secure a helipad in the rough terrain in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and in areas where Naxalites have influence, are enforced.

The police are required to call in IAF helicopters to move troops, equipment, ration and casualties only after ensuring that there is no presence of Naxalites within a radius of 1.5-2km of the landing zone, that is only after making certain that the helipad is out of the range of the rebels’ small arms fire.

Since “Op Triveni” began in 2010, Indian Air Force helicopters have been targeted at least 12 times by the rebels. They have been hit at least five times (a strike rate of 41.6 per cent). But only once — on January 18 — were the attackers able to immobilise the helicopter that had to be left in the jungles for more than 24 hours till IAF engineers could salvage it. The Mi 17 is now back in operation.

In August last year, IAF helicopter pilot Wing Commander V.K. Singh was awarded the Shaurya Chakra gallantry medal for a mission in December 2011 in which he flew a Mi 17 helicopter to evacuate CRPF personnel in Chhattisgarh. He flew the helicopter to base even after it was hit by ground fire from automatic weapons.

The IAF is authorised to fire at Naxalites in self-defence but it is wary of the potential repercussions of shooting from the air because that has a wider area of devastation.

In October last year, Air Chief Marshal N.A.K Browne said the IAF would deploy newly procured Russian-origin Mil Mi 17 V-5 helicopters capable of flying in the night in Op Triveni. He said the IAF had also requested the Union home ministry and the state governments to improve the infrastructure for the helicopters.

“As far as the infrastructure (in Naxalite-affected areas) is concerned, yes, we have a problem. We were sure of certain amount of infrastructure which was to come up by the state governments, unfortunately that has not happened,” Browne had said.

In Op Triveni, that is now just over three years old, IAF helicopters have flown 6,067 sorties, lifting 34,884 troops, 192 casualties and trained 1,500 policemen, an air headquarters source said.