From Jal Khambata

NEW DELHI: India and Pakistan got into the war gears once again with a heightened tension on the western front from the downing of a Pakistani spy aircraft, putting a question mark on continuation of the Lok Sabha elections that began just on Wednesday with the notifications by the Election Commission.

Both sides were engaged in the day-long top level political and military assessments of the shooting down of a Pakistani spy aircraft on Tuesday even as Indian and foreign journalists being carried to the site of its wreckage by the Indian Air Force narrowly escaped a retaliatory attack on their helicopters by Pakistan.

The Cabinet Committee on Security met in the morning in Delhi to take stock of the situation and then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee convened a meeting of the political parties to take them into confidence by letting the military give them the briefing while Nawaz Sharif chaired a meeting of Defence Committee of Cabinet in Islamabad to fully back any retaliatory action his military likes to take.

POLL UNAFFECTED, SAYS PM: Vajpayee is understood to have told leaders of the parties that it was too early to assess impact of the renewed Pakistan's aggressive postures, be they on the Gujarat border or in Jammu and Kashmir, on the elections, while the Home Ministry officials said there would be no problem in providing the Central security forces for the elections unless the situation escalates in a very big way.

Both sides are still insisting that the Pakistani aircraft was shot down in their territory and even India's claim of recovering some of the wreckage from the a marshy creek in its territory was quickly refuted by Pakistan saying parts of the wreckage were "stolen" from its territory just before the rescue helicopters reached the spot. A Pakistan Navy spokesman claimed its pilots saw the Indian helicopters flying back from the site.

Since the aircraft disintegrated while heading back towards Pakistan after being bombed, the debris appear to have fallen over a very long distance, enabling both India and Pakistan to show some wreckage to insist on respective claims.

Nobody has, however, recovered a single body and the Indian Air Force said its pilots did not see anybody bailing out using parachutes. The wreckage has gone deep under the marshy land and hence it may take days before the bodies can be recovered, the IAF spokesman said.

APOLOGY: Pakistan Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz even sought an unqualified apology from India for killing 16 Pakistani airmen by shooting down the aircraft without warning while Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman R S Jassal said there was no question of any apology since the fault was with the pilots of the ill-fated aircraft who ignored all warnings and signals given by two chasing IAF aircraft to land. "The responsibility for what happened and any loss of life rests squarely with Pakistan. The aircraft was engaged 10 kms inside Indian airspace and the wrecakage is located in Indian territory clearly on our side of the international border," Jassal affirmed.

The Indian Air Force showed to the Media in Delhi some of the recovered material, including fuselage, wings and cockpit of the Pakistani surveillance plane as also bank documents and other papers of Pakistani pilots including those of Syed Sarasat of the 29 Air Borne Surveillance Warning Squadron of Pakistan.

At a joint Press briefing by the Indian Foreign Ministry and the Defence Ministry, the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy spokesmen said the Altantique aircraft was shot down when it had already intruded 10 km into the Indian airspace and ignored all visual signals for force-landing on the Indian airport compelling the chasing pilots to open fire when it started heading back to Pakistan.

Pointing out the Pakistan Information Minister's remarks that the aircraft was on a surveillance mission and not for any attack that it had to be shot down, Jassal said surveillance by a military aircraft in another country's airspace is a hostile activity and insisted that it fell under the definition of the combat aircraft in the contest of the Indo-Pakistan agreement on prevention of airspace violations signed in 1991.

He said Pakistan cannot deny that apart from its primary capability of reconnaissance and surveillance, such an aircraft is capable of carrying an array of lethal weapons and store including air-to-surface missiles and bombs. The IAF spokesman added that it was in all probability engaged in electronic intelligence to locate radar and other equipment which requires getting closest to the border.

NARROW ESCAPE: An alert pilot of one of the three helicopters caught the flash of the suspected missile fired as he banged right down and then all the helicopters covered by the combat jets returned to the Nalia air base lest the journalists' lives were endangered in trying to show them the Mori Creek from where some of the wreckage was recovered.

Pakistan spokesman Rashid Qureshi was, however, quick in denying any attack on the helicopters and affirming that the Pakistani Air Force had no option but to fire upon the Indian war jets that intruded into the Pakistan territory. India, however, denying any such intrusion.

NOT FIRST AIR INTRUSION: Indian Air Force Group Capt Ganesh said there has been 30 airspace violations by Pakistan since May and 26 of them have been already taken up with the Pakistan authorities during the talks between the two countries' Directors General of Military Operations (DGMOs). Since beginning of the year, India has reported 52 airspace violations by Pakistan, he said while refuting reports from Pakistan as to why India never earlier protested against these violations.

There has, however, been no shooting down of any intruded aircraft in the past since they have quickly withdrawn either on being warned or before the IAF jets reach out to attack them, Group Capt. Ganesh said while pointing out that the two MiG jets tried to escort the ill-fated spy plane to the Indian air base but the pilots manning it ignored even the visual signals given by one of the jets flying in front of it. When it turned around and tried to get back to Pakistan, there was no option but to shoot it down, he explained.

Asked if the political clearance was obtained before shooting down the Pakistani aircraft as the single action has again brought the two countries face to face with spectre of another war-like situation, the Group Capt said there is no time to take orders from Delhi as the action takes place very fast.

"We, however, ensure that our men on the spot take right decision. There is a watertight procedure that is followed in such situations, the Group Capt said while his Indian Navy counterpart added that "we have rules of engagement in peace time to first identify the intruding aircraft's pilot, tell him to land and if he disobeys, shoot him down." END.