Indian defense chief General Bipin Rawat and his wife were among at least 13 people killed when a military chopper they were traveling in crashed on Wednesday in the Nilgiri Hills of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, officials said.
Rawat, 63, the top-most military commander, was a four-star general, serving as India’s first Chief of Defense Staff and spearheading the country’s military modernization plan amid China’s growing influence in the region and bitter Sino-Indian border disputes.
“With deep regret, it has now been ascertained that Gen. Bipin Rawat, Madhulika Rawat and 11 other persons on board have died in the unfortunate accident,” the Indian Air Force tweeted after hours of suspense surrounding one of the most tragic military air accidents.
There were 14 people on board the IAF’s Russia-made Mi-17V5 transport helicopter, one of the most sophisticated military choppers.
Group Captain Varun Singh was the only survivor receiving treatment at a military hospital in Coonoor, Tamil Nadu, the IAF said.
The IAF has begun an inquiry “to ascertain the cause of the accident.”
The chopper was heading to the Wellington defense establishment in the southern state when it crashed in the hilly area.
The IAF said Gen. Rawat was visiting Defense Services Staff College in Wellington nestled in the Nilgiri Hills to address the faculty and student officers.
Social media videos allegedly from the site of the accident showed the chopper turned into a mangled wreck with the bodies of its passengers burnt beyond recognition.
Indian broadcaster NDTV showed disturbing images of wreckage and burnt human bodies in the hills as rescuers struggled their way through thick smoke and flames of fire.
Rawat, 63, took as India’s first tri-services chief, or the Chief of Defense Staff, in December 2016.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi created the position to integrate the three services — the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force.
Rawat, seen close to Modi, had earlier served as the chief of the Indian Army and had four decades of serving the armed forces.
He came from a military background with several generations of his family who have served in the Indian armed forces for decades.
One of the most decorated generals, Rawat had commanded forces in the troubled Indian-administered Kashmir and along the Line of Actual Control bordering China.
PM Modi described Rawat as an “outstanding soldier, a true patriot.”
“He greatly contributed to modernizing our armed forces and security apparatus. His insights and perspectives on strategic matters were exceptional. His passing away has saddened me deeply,” Modi tweeted.
Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said Rawat had served the country with exceptional courage and diligence.
“As the first Chief of Defence Staff he had prepared plans for jointness of our armed forces.”
Military aircraft accidents are common in India, one of the top buyers of arms and ammunition in the world.
Experts usually blame India’s aging air force fleet for the accidents.
In 2019, an Indian military pilot lost his life, and two others suffered injuries in an air collision during exercises in Bangalore, in southern India.
In October 2017, at least five members of the Indian Air Force were killed after an M-17 helicopter crashed in Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast.
In December 2015, 10 members of the Border Security Force died in a crash in New Delhi. EFE