New Delhi: The IAF has got the government's permission to fire back at Naxals in extremist-hit areas in self-defence, highly-placed Air Force sources said on Thursday.
The government's nod to the IAF's request made in September last year comes at a time when a debate is raging on whether India should use its armed forces against left-wing extremists, whom Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described as the gravest internal security threat.
The IAF currently deploys two of its Mi-17s and two Dhruv helicopters in anti-Naxal operations. It had lost one of its personnel when a helicopter ferrying election officials and material during the Chattisgarh assembly polls was fired at by suspected Naxals a couple of years ago.
The government had given permission to the IAF to defend itself from the extremists' fire and had laid out conditions on the use of small arms in self-defence sometime in October-November last year.
Consequently, the IAF has fitted sideward-mounted machine guns on its helicopters flying in Naxal-affected areas basically for logistics, personnel transport and casualty evacuation of paramilitary forces engaged in fighting the Maoists, the sources said.
These guns would be operated by IAF commandos belonging to Garud units, who would be on board the helicopters every time they go out on sorties, the sources said.
Defence Minister A K Antony had told Parliament in November last year that though no offensive military action had been envisaged while using the IAF helicopters in anti-Naxal operations, there was no specific approval required for action in self-defence.
However, the IAF has proposed a draft 'Rules of Engagement' to regulate such action, in order to avoid any ambiguity and damage to the helicopters or injury to their occupants, he had said replying to members' questions.
Among the conditions laid out were that no indiscriminate firing should be carried out and that the Garuds should be sure of the source of the attack on the helicopters before retaliatory fire was unleashed.
These guidelines were issued to ensure there were no civilian causalities in case the IAF used its guns in self-defence, the Defence Ministry had explained then.
"The IAF helicopter crew will not use the conventional heavy fire power weapons such as rockets and other guns on board, but only the sideward-mounted machine guns. They will use the weapons only if fired upon," the sources said.
"Fortunately, in these months that we have been allowed to defend our assets, there has been no occasion when we had to use the sideward-mounted guns," they said.