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India's top military commander among 13 killed in helicopter crash

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Local residents try to contain the fire after a helicopter carrying India's Chief of Defense Staff General Bipin Rawat crashed near Coonoor, Tamil Nadu state, India, December 8, 2021. Bangalore New Photos via AP

New Delhi — India's top military commander, Chief of Defense Staff General Bipin Rawat, was among 13 people killed in a helicopter crash on Wednesday afternoon in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the Indian Air Force said. Rawat's wife, two other senior military officers, five commandos and five Air Force personnel were all killed in the crash.

Another senior military officer was being treated in a hospital for severe burns.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi lauded Rawat, the first person ever to hold the role commanding all of India's military branches, as "an outstanding soldier," and said his death had "saddened me deeply."

"A true patriot," wrote Modi on Twitter, saying Rawat had "greatly contributed to modernizing our armed forces and security apparatus."

The Air Force had earlier confirmed that an IAF Mi-17 V5 helicopter carrying Rawat had "met with an accident today near Coonoor, Tamil Nadu," and that an inquiry had been ordered to determine the cause of the crash.

Rawat had flown more than 1,500 miles from India's capital New Delhi to the town of Sulur in Tamil Nadu earlier in the day. On the short onward flight from Sulur to the town of Wellington, his Russian-made helicopter crashed soon after take-off. The Mi-17V5 is considered among the most sophisticated military transport helicopters in the world, but India's Air Force has suffered a high number of aircraft crashes in recent years.

Indian news outlets aired video from the crash site showing the wreckage of the helicopter in flames in a forested area. Some locals tried to douse the fire. Other video showed charred bodies being recovered from the site. 

Rawat, 63, became India's first Chief of Defense Staff in January 2019, a newly created position designed to better integrate India's three core military branches, the Army, Air Force, and Navy.

Previously he served as the country's Chief of the Army Staff. 

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