Copter row irks Antony

Bangalore, Feb. 6: Defence minister A.K. Antony today objected to the public spat between the Union home ministry and the Indian Air Force over the January 18 shooting of a helicopter by Maoists in Chhattisgarh, calling it "an internal family matter of the government".

Antony's indignation had apparently been aroused after the contents of a letter from Union home secretary R.K. Singh to his counterpart in the defence ministry, Shashikant Sharma, was leaked on Tuesday.

The home secretary had sought clarifications after complaints from police in Chhattisgarh that the crew of the Mi-17 1V helicopter had abandoned the machine with an injured radio operator and a light machine gun and fled to safety.

"Don't make a mountain out of a molehill," Antony told journalists who wanted to know his response. "The IAF has done 172 missions to evacuate casualties of the police (in counter-Naxalite duties). In three years there has been no complaint. But we will take serious note. The IAF is also conducting an inquiry. Let us wait for the inquiry report. I have asked for it to be speeded up."

Sources in the ministry said Antony was angry because he thought the home ministry was being na�ve in focusing on a perceived failure by the IAF that was performing in trying conditions in a zone that was not secure.

The prevailing mood in the defence ministry, one source said, is that "if we are in a counter-insurgency situation for so long, there will be something or the other happening in the heat of a battle and we have to just move on from there".

The source said the army and the air force work in close conjunction in several conflict zones ' in Jammu and Kashmir and in the Northeast ' but not much is made of perceived errors of omission and commission in an operational scenario unless it involves a heavy toll in lives and serious damage to property.

Air force sources said the police had discounted the fact that the landing by the Mi 17 helicopter in the face of firing involved deft manoeuvring by the aircrew.

Members of the crew were splashed with hot oil that sprung from leaks in the hydraulic system that took bullets from the rebels.

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