A military helicopter carrying foreign diplomats and their wives crash-landed in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan territory on Friday, killing seven of the 17 passengers aboard. According to the Twitter account of Asim Bajwa, the director-general of Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR), the Pakistan army’s media brand, the dead included four foreigners – the ambassadors of Norway and the Philippines, and the wives of the Indonesian and Malaysian ambassadors – and three Pakistanis (two pilots and one crew member). Ambassadors from Poland and the Netherlands were injured in the crash.
The Mi-17 helicopter crashed into a building that part of an army school complex, but fortunately there were no children inside at the time. No on-ground casualties were reported from the crash.
The helicopter was one of three carrying passengers to the Naltar valley, where the guests were to attend the opening ceremony of a new ski chairlift donated by Switzerland. According to the BBC, the ceremony had already been delayed several times due to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s schedule. The aircraft carrying Sharif, who was also slated to attend, turned back immediately upon hearing of the crash.
The ceremony has been cancelled and Sharif had declared a day of mourning over the crash. Sharif and Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif (no relation) both expressed grief over the accident and condolences to the families in separate statements.
The Pakistani Taliban (TTP) has claimed responsibility for the incident, saying they shot down the helicopter with an anti-aircraft missile, hoping that Sharif was on board. “The special task force of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had prepared a special plan during the visit of the prime minister but he escaped as he was in other helicopter,” Xinhua quoted a self-proclaimed TTP spokesman as saying.
However, Pakistan’s military has dismissed those claims. Bajwa said on Twitter that the helicopter developed a technical fault while landing, labeling the crash an accident. Observers also noted there were strong winds at the time of the crash.
Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry also denied that the crash was the result of a terrorist attack, citing engine failure as the cause.
Michael Kugelman, a senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., is also skeptical about TTP involvement. “At this early stage, engine failure or some other technical issue seems like a more logical explanation than terrorism,” he told The Diplomat via email. “Those that witnessed the helicopter crash have seemed quite convinced that something inside the aircraft — and not something that hit it externally — brought it down.” Kugelman also notes that, although the TTP “has indeed staged attack in the Gilgit region … its presence there is relatively limited.” Although TTP responsibility can’t be entirely ruled out, Kugelman says, “this tragedy seems to have little to do with terrorism.”
Instead, the TTP may be taking advantage of a tragic accident to boost its reputation. The group has “been decimated by drone strikes and Pakistani military offensives” recently, Kugelman notes, weakening its capabilities. Thus the TTP “may have decided to claim responsibility for an attack it didn’t carry out as an act of desperation — to make itself seem like it’s still a major force to be reckoned with.”