GHORI, Pakistan (Reuters) - A Pakistani army helicopter escorting President Pervez Musharraf crashed in Kashmir on Monday, killing four people including two commandos from his security detail, an army spokesman said.
General Musharraf, who polled most votes in a presidential election on Saturday, was visiting Kashmir to mark the second anniversary of an earthquake in the region. The stricken helicopter, carrying a dozen people, was following Musharraf’s.
“It took off after President Musharraf left,” army spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad said. “The president is safe and sound. He has reached his destination.”
The president’s spokesman, retired Major-General Rashid Qureshi, was among eight injured in the crash, Arshad said.
The four killed included a brigadier, the two commandos, and a cameraman from state-run television.
“The engine backed up and because of that it immediately went down,” Arshad said. “The pilot made a crash landing. Once he did that the rear portion of the helicopter caught fire.”
Arshad said there would be an inquiry, but he doubted whether the helicopter had been sabotaged or attacked, as it would have been more likely to have exploded in the air.
U.S. ally Musharraf has survived at least three assassination attempts by al Qaeda linked militants.
The most recent was last July, when assassins tried to shoot down his airplane after it took off from the military airfield at Rawalpindi. The plane was well out of range.
A man in Ghori village said he saw the helicopter trailing smoke as it flew low over the village in a valley 18 km (11 miles) south of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir.
“It was a great effort by the pilot because it was flying low over the houses. The pilot took it to a field,” Khateeb Gardezi told Reuters.
“I saw General Rashid Qureshi and several other soldiers jumping from a height of 10-11 feet (three to four metres).
“It crashed with a deafening bang. I and another villager tried to help soldiers. General Qureshi was slightly wounded.”
A neighbour, Waqar Kazmi, said he heard some kind of blast while the helicopter was still airborne.
“Its sound was unusually loud. Then I heard a blast and a few parts of the chopper fell to the ground,” Waqar Kazmi said.
Villagers rushed to help people on board the flaming helicopter escape as it hit the ground.
“We rescued three soldiers from the burning chopper before the fire intensified,” said Arshad Kazmi, who was among the first to reach the spot.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court says Musharraf cannot be confirmed as the winner of Saturday’s election by the parliamentary and provincial assemblies until it rules whether he was eligible to stand while still army chief.
Musharraf has vowed to quit the army and be sworn in as a civilian leader if he is elected.
General Ashfaq Kayani has been named as Musharraf’s successor as army chief. On Monday, he took up his new post as vice chief, having earlier headed the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency.
Whenever Musharraf travels by helicopter several aircraft are used as potential decoys, and it is not known whether he will be in the lead helicopter or one of those following.
Pakistan’s previous military ruler President Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq was killed in 1988 when the Hercules C-130 aircraft carrying him crashed in mysterious circumstances.
Conspiracy theorists have suggested a case of mangoes put aboard Zia’s plane shortly before takeoff contained a timer device that released gas that knocked out the cockpit crew.
Additional reporting by Abu Arqam Naqash in Muzaffarabad, and Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad