A helicopter accompanying President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to quake-hit Kashmir crashed in flames Monday, killing four people on board, officials said. The president was unhurt but his spokesman was among five injured.
The army said it had launched an immediate inquiry to establish the cause of the crash that chief spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad blamed on a “technical fault.”
Witnesses said there was no indication of hostile fire but it revives concern about the safety of the U.S.-allied general who has survived several assassination attempts. It happened two days after he secured a provisional victory in a controversial presidential election.
The fatalities included a cameraman for state television, a military intelligence brigadier and two soldiers, officials said.
The president’s spokesman, Rashid Qureshi, suffered a burned right hand but was in stable condition, they said. The helicopter went down on the outskirts of Mujhoi, a village 20 km south of Muzaffarabad.
In another development, around 50 Pakistani soldiers were reported missing after gunbattles with Islamic militants in a troubled tribal area that have already claimed 80 lives since the weekend, the army said.
The soldiers have been out of radio contact since Monday morning in rugged North Waziristan, a region bordering Afghanistan where the United States says Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network and the Taliban are regrouping.
News of the missing soldiers comes as a fresh blow to the army, with militants already holding more than 200 soldiers in another part of the insurgency-plagued ethnic Pashtun tribal belt.
Violence has spiked in the troubled region since Pakistani security forces besieged and then raided the Al Qaeda-linked Lal Masjid in July -- an operation that Osama bin Laden has urged militants to avenge.
“We have reports of around 50 troops missing. They are out of communications and their whereabouts have not been found,” chief military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said.