NEW DELHI — The head of India’s armed forces, Gen. Bipin Rawat, was among 13 people killed Wednesday when the military helicopter they were traveling in crashed, the Indian air force said.
They were en route from an air force base to a hillside military college in the southern state of Tamil Nadu when the Russian-made Mi-17V5 helicopter went down near the town of Coonoor.
Local television footage showed rescuers and army personnel carrying bodies up steep slopes from the mangled wreckage. Only one of the 14 people on board survived and was in hospital with injuries.
“With deep regret, it has now been ascertained that Gen. Bipin Rawat, (his wife) Mrs. Madhulika Rawat and 11 other persons on board have died,” the air force said in a statement.
Rawat, 63, was appointed India’s first chief of defense staff by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in late 2019. The position was set up with the aim of integrating India’s three military services — the army, the navy and the air force.
Several of the bodies were badly burned, two government sources said.
Modi said he was deeply saddened by Rawat’s death. “A true patriot, he greatly contributed to modernizing our armed forces and security apparatus,” the prime minister said.
In a tweet, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh called Rawat’s death “an irreparable loss to our armed forces and the country.”
The Indian air force ordered an inquiry into the cause of the accident.
India has dozens of Mi-17s in service. They are widely deployed to transport senior army personnel and government ministers.
“This is a safe, proven helicopter, I have traveled on it in difficult situations,” former army chief J.J.Singh said.
An infantryman with more than four decades of military service, Rawat served along India’s border with China, the disputed Kashmir region and on a United Nations mission in Africa, before taking charge of the Indian army in late 2016.
In New Delhi, the defense minister visited Rawat’s official residence and the state broadcaster said Modi had summoned a meeting of the Cabinet committee on security Wednesday evening.