A helicopter carrying India’s chief of defence staff, his wife and several top military officials crashed in the hills of south India, killing 13 people on board, including the top official, the country's air force said on Wednesday.
“With deep regret, it has now been ascertained that Gen Bipin Rawat, Mrs Madhulika Rawat and 11 other persons on board have died in the unfortunate accident,” the Indian Air Force said on Twitter.
The Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter had taken off from Sular air force base and was set to land at the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) in Wellington in the Nilgiri Hills, where Mr Rawat was scheduled to address the faculty and students.
The helicopter was already making its descent at the time of the crash.
The sole survivor of the crash, a captain working at the DSSC, was being treated for his injuries at a nearby military hospital, the air force said. It said an inquiry has been ordered to ascertain the cause of the accident.
Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said he was “deeply shocked” by the accident and Gen Rawat's death.
“We worked closely together in the last few years. It is a huge loss to the nation,” he said.
“His untimely death is an irreparable loss to our Armed Forces and the country,” said Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, who briefed Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the crash and visited Gen Rawat’s house in Delhi.
Mr Modi expressed his condolences and said Gen Rawat had helped modernise the country's armed forces.
“Gen Bipin Rawat was an outstanding soldier. His insights and perspectives on strategic matters were exceptional. His passing away has saddened me deeply,” the prime minister said on Twitter.
The army chief of India’s arch-rival Pakistan, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, expressed his condolences on the “tragic death” of Rawat and his wife, its government said on Twitter.
Footage on TV channels showed the helicopter wrecked and in flames as the army and police attempted to rescue its passengers.
Locals first swung into action and tried to douse the flames with buckets of water and a water hose before rescue teams arrived in the wooded area.
Media reports said four charred bodies were recovered from the mangled remains of the chopper while three people with serious injuries were moved to the hospital.
Local officials told The National that the crash site was several kilometres away from the main road, forcing the rescue team of dozens of firefighters to trek before they could reach the accident site.
One witness told local media that the “helicopter hit one tree and caught fire” during the crash.
“I saw the helicopter coming down. There were terrible loud sounds. It hit one tree and was on fire then itself,” said Krishnaswamy, who lives about 100 metres from the crash site.
Gen Rawat came from a military family with several generations having served in the Indian armed forces.
The general joined the army as a second lieutenant in 1978 and had four decades of service behind him, having commanded forces in Indian-administered Kashmir and along the Line of Actual Control bordering China.
He was credited with reducing insurgency on India's north-eastern frontier and he supervised a cross-border counter-insurgency operation into neighbouring Myanmar.
Gen Rawat was chief of the 1.3-million-strong army from 2017 to 2019 before his elevation to defence services chief, which analysts said was aimed at improving integration between the army, navy and air force.
He was considered close to the Modi government and turned heads last month when he reportedly made an approving reference to “lynching terrorists” in the contested territory of Kashmir.
The Mi-17 transport helicopter is one of the most trusted military helicopters, designed to carry personnel, cargo and equipment. Its tasks include tactical air drops, destroying ground targets and medical evacuations.