|Part of Indo-Pakistani wars and conflicts|
An Atlantic plane belonging to the Italian Navy. The downed Pakistan Navy plane was of the same type.
|Commanders and leaders|
|PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee
ACM Anil Tipnis
Sqn. Ldr. P.K. Bundela
Fl. Lt. S. Narayanan
|PM Nawaz Sharif
Adm. Fasih Bokhari
|2 MiG-21FL||1 Atlantic-91PN|
|Casualties and losses|
|None||5 officers killed
11 sailors killed
The Atlantique Incident was an event in which a Breguet Atlantic patrol plane of the Pakistan Navy's Naval Air Arm, with 16 people on board, was shot down by the Indian Air Force for violating Indian airspace. The episode took place in the Rann of Kutch on 10 August 1999, just a month after the Kargil War, aggravating already tense relations between India and Pakistan.
Foreign diplomats based in Pakistan and escorted to the site by the Pakistani Army noted that the plane may have crossed the border. However, the Islamabad-based diplomats said they also believed that India's reaction was unjustified. Pakistan later lodged a compensation claim at the International Court of Justice, blaming India for the incident, but the court dismissed the case, ruling that the Court had no jurisdiction in the matter.
The French-built Breguet Atlantic (Breguet Br.1150 Atlantic) plane, flight Atlantic-91, c/n 33, of 29 Squadron, was one of the Pakistan Navy's frontline aircraft, used primarily for patrol and reconnaissance. Atlantic-91 left Mehran (Sindh province) Naval Base in Pakistan at 9:15 am (PST). Indian Air Force ground radar picked up the plane as it approached the India-Pakistan border. Two IAF MiG-21 interceptor aircraft of No.45 Squadron, from the Indian airbase at Naliya in the Kutch region, were scrambled. After a series of manoeuvres—with conflicting versions of events from both sides—the two jets were given clearance to shoot down the Pakistani plane. At 11:17 am IST (10:47 am PST), nearly two hours after takeoff from Pakistan, the Atlantic was intercepted and an infrared homing R-60 air-to-air missile was fired at it by Squadron Leader P.K. Bundela, hitting the engine on the port side of the plane. This resulted in the aircraft going out of control and spiraling groundward, crashing at approximately 1100 hours PST, at the approximate location . All 16 personnel on board the Atlantic-91, including five officers of the Pakistan Navy, were killed.
The incident was the Pakistan Navy's only loss of an aircraft to hostile fire in its history, and the biggest combat-related casualty for the Navy since the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.
Claims and counterclaims
The event immediately sparked claims and counter-claims by both nations. Pakistan claimed that the plane was unarmed and the debris was found on Pakistan's side of the border, and there was no violation of Indian airspace. According to the official Pakistan version of events, the plane was on a routine training mission inside Pakistan air space. The Pakistani Prime Minister stated during the funeral service of the airmen that the shooting was a barbaric act.
The Indian Air force claimed that the aeroplane did not respond to international protocol and that it acted in a "hostile" manner, adding that the debris of a downed aircraft could fall over a wide radius. Indian sources also stated that Pakistan's Information Minister, Mushahid Hussein, was initially quoted as saying that the aircraft was on a surveillance mission. India also alleged that the plane violated a bilateral agreement, signed by India and Pakistan in 1991, under which no military aircraft were to come within 10 km of the border (although Pakistan claimed the Atlantic was not a combat aircraft). Indian experts also questioned why a training mission was being carried out so close to the border, when all air forces conduct training flights in clearly demarcated training areas located well away from international boundaries. According to them, the Pakistani claim was untenable since the primary role of the Atlantic is for operations over the sea and that to carry out a training flight over land deep inside foreign territory was an indication of its use in a surveillance role. India displayed part of the wreckage of the Pakistani naval aircraft at New Delhi airport the next day. Pakistan however, stated that the wreckage was removed from its side of the border by Indian helicopters.
While Pakistan said that the plane was unarmed and the debris was within Pakistani territory, India maintained that warnings had been given to the Atlantic and that its flight trajectory meant it could have fallen on either side of the border. According to the Indian version of events, the MiGs tried to escort it to a nearby Indian base, when the Pakistani aircraft turned abruptly and tried to make a dash for the border; it was only then that it was fired upon. India claimed that the debris was found in a radius of 2 km on either side of the border and that the intrusion took place 10 km inside the Kori Creek, which is Indian territory. Pakistan requested that the matter be taken up in the UN. Indian officials blamed that there had been previous violations in the area and pointed out that in the previous year a Pakistani unmanned surveillance aircraft had intruded 150 km inside the Indian border, coming close to the Bhuj air base before the IAF spotted it and brought it down with several missiles.
Indian analysts state "flare-ups" in the Rann of Kutch region were routine, and despite bilateral agreements, both India and Pakistan had conducted air intrusions in the past. Thus, the fact that the Atlantic was shot down, despite coming close to the Indian border, came as a surprise. Indian officials add that Pakistan military aircraft had violated Indian airspace at least 50 times since January 1999, showing videotapes of Pakistani Atlantics "buzzing", or flying provocatively near the Indian Navy's warships in the Indian Ocean. Some Indian analysts stated that the Atlantic was nearly destroyed in 1983 on a similar encounter and noted other close encounters and violations from Pakistani naval planes.
Some experts stated that the Atlantic was probably conducting a "probe" on India's air defence system, mainly the radar equipment in the border area; however, they advised that it was not part of any planned aggressive military action by Pakistan. Foreign diplomats who visited the crash site noted that the plane "may have strayed into restricted space", and that Islamabad was unable to explain why it was flying so close to the border; they however added that India's reaction to the incident was not justified. Many countries, the G8, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, as well as the western media questioned the wisdom behind Pakistan's decision to fly military aircraft so close to the Indian border.
Rise in tensions
On the day following the attack, an IAF helicopter carrying journalists to the site of the attack was attacked by the Pakistan Army with a surface-to-air missile. Pakistani officials asserted that two Indian jets had intruded into Pakistani airspace near the Atlantic wreckage site, along the border between the Indian state of Gujarat and Pakistan's Sindh Province, and were then fired upon by Pakistan. International and Indian television journalists travelling in the chopper said the aircraft shook severely and a flash appeared in the air, suggesting a missile had been fired at it. The IAF thus aborted their mission to display Atlantic wreckage on Indian soil.
Following this, and the rising tensions in the area coupled by the fact that the Sir Creek was a disputed territory, both the countries' militaries near the Rann of Kutch and nearby were put on high alert. Pakistan sent a company of soldiers, equipped with both laser guided and infrared homing shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, to the site near the border. Coming barely weeks after the Kargil Conflict where both nuclear armed countries fought high altitude warfare, this incident was seen with growing concern around the world. The US State Department termed the subcontinent as being in a state of "continued high-stakes tension."
On 21 September 1999, Pakistan lodged a compensation claim at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, accusing India of shooting down an unarmed aircraft. Pakistan sought about US$60 million in reparations from India and compensation for the victims' families. India's attorney general, Soli Sorabjee, argued that the court did not have jurisdiction, citing an exemption it filed in 1974 to exclude disputes between India and other Commonwealth States, and disputes covered by multi-lateral treaties. In the buildup to the case, India also contended that Pakistan had violated the 1991 bilateral agreement between Pakistan and India on air violations, which states: "Combat aircraft (including, Bombers, Reconnaissance aircraft, Jet military trainers and Armed helicopters) will not fly within 10 km of each other's airspace including Air Defense Identification Zone."
On 21 June 2000, the 16-judge Bench headed by Gilbert Guillaume of France ruled—with a 14–2 verdict—upholding India's submission that the court had no jurisdiction in this matter. Pakistan's claims were dropped, without recourse to appeal, and the outcome was seen as a decision highly favourable to India. The Pakistan government had spent close to 25 million Pakistani rupees (approx. $400,000) on the case.
In India, the incident made the two pilots of the MiG-21s into instant heroes. On 8 October 2000, the prestigious Vayusena medal was awarded to Squadron Leader P.K. Bundela. The medal was also awarded to Wing Commander V.S. Sharma (the fighter controller who tracked the Atlantic, guided the pilot and ordered him to attack the plane) and Squadron Leader Pankaj Vishnoi, the helicopter pilot who recovered a part of the Atlantic's debris from the marshy border regions of the Rann.
The downing of the Pakistani aircraft came at a particularly bad juncture for the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. Two months later, he was deposed in a bloodless coup d'état by General Pervez Musharraf.
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