Helicopter carrying India’s army chief crashes, killing 11

At least 11 people were killed after a helicopter carrying India’s chief of army staff crashed in central India on Sunday, government officials said.

The Mi-17 helicopter carrying General Bipin Rawat and four other people crashed as it was taking off from the Himachal Pradesh state capital of Shimla, where the general was on an official visit.

Rawat was taking part in a ceremony to inaugurate the investment hub of Salwa Judum, a vigilante force named after the Bible’s parable of the ants and the fig tree.

“Twenty-four ambulances have rushed to the accident site to provide first aid to the victims,” a senior official of the Himachal Pradesh government told Reuters.

Another official at the state’s disaster management department said they are still ascertaining the number of casualties.

No one was injured in the crash of the German-made helicopter from AgustaWestland, a unit of defence major Finmeccanica, said Shrikant Sharma, a senior air force official in New Delhi.

Citing unidentified sources, Indian Express reported that Rawat had been sent back to Shimla and the accident was not an attack. However, the armed forces will investigate any conspiracy behind the crash, the media quoted unidentified sources as saying.

A pilot of the helicopter spoke to the newspaper about the situation after the crash. “I was taking off when my tail rotor [gear box] suddenly switched off. A very loud noise followed and then the helicopter disappeared from view,” a pilot, Ramesh Kumar, told Indian Express.

Rawat is the latest in a series of high-profile deaths in India’s air force. In April, on the eve of the Make in India trade show, an Arihant-class submarine sank, killing all 18 sailors on board.

In a letter to prime minister Narendra Modi, the air force chief stressed the “deteriorating state of our fleet”. In May, in its annual report, the ministry of defence described the Indian air force as “flawed and old”, with some of its airworthiness records having to be revoked.

“The state of the Russian-origin Mi-17 helicopters, procured in bulk, makes them unavailable for mission deployments, given their age,” the ministry said.

The aircraft have experienced a series of technical failures, prompting the ministry of defence to investigate the manufacture of the aircraft from AgustaWestland and why the helicopters are not able to fly due to the deficiencies.

In 2013, the top ranking officer in the Indian air force, Air Marshal P Ramamurthy, was killed in a helicopter crash while on a training flight near Bangalore.

On 1 June, in what has been described as India’s highest-profile air force crash, at least six people died in a helicopter crash near the official residence of the president in Delhi.

The incident sparked a rift between the government and the air force, which said it was not given more than three days to take down photographs and other media material from the chopper wreckage.

Modi ordered a top-level enquiry to be conducted within a week, the government said in a statement.

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