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New Delhi, India | A helicopter carrying India's defence chief General Bipin Rawat crashed on Wednesday, the air force said, with a government minister at the scene saying at least seven people were dead.
Rawat is India's first chief of defence staff, a position that the government established in 2019, and is seen as close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The 63-year-old was travelling with his wife and 12 others in a Russian-made Mi-17 chopper that "met with an accident today near Coonoor, Tamil Nadu", the Indian Air Force said.
It was unclear whether Rawat had survived the accident.
Footage from the scene showed a crowd of people trying to extinguish the fiery wreck with water buckets while a group of soldiers carried one of the passengers away on an improvised stretcher.
At least seven bodies had been recovered, Tamil Nadu forests minister K. Ramachandran said from the scene of the crash, according to the Times of India.
"Some of the injured have been taken to the hospital," a fire department official in Coonoor told AFP.
Rawat was headed to the Defence Services Staff College from the nearby Sulur air force base in Coimbatore and the helicopter was already making its descent.
It came down around 10 kilometres (six miles) from the nearest road, forcing emergency workers to trek to the accident site, another fire official told AFP.
- Career officer -
Rawat comes 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 has four decades of service behind him, having commanded forces in Indian-administered Kashmir and along the Line of Actual Control bordering China.
He is credited with reducing insurgency on India's northeastern frontier and supervised a cross-border counter-insurgency operation into neighbouring Myanmar.
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 to improve integration between the army, navy and air force.
He is 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 helicopter, which first entered service in the 1970s and is in wide use by defence services around the world, has been involved in a number of accidents over the years.
Fourteen people died in a crash last month when an Azerbaijani military Mi-17 chopper went down during a training flight.
In 2019, four Indonesian soldiers were killed and five others wounded in central Java in another training accident involving the aircraft.
India's air force said an inquiry was underway into Wednesday's accident.
© Agence France-Presse