Thursday, September 3, 2009

YSR copter vanishes over andhra forest

Sept. 2: Unprecedented air, land and satellite search operations were launched on Wednesday to locate Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy and others who were in a helicopter that went missing on Wednesday morning. There was no word on the whereabouts, or what had happened to the helicopter, till the time of going to press. The CM had taken off from Begumpet airport at 8.35 am to go to Chittoor to launch his Rachabanda programme to talk to drought-affected farmers and quell their fears. The CM was accompanied by his special secretary, Dr Subrahmanyam, his personal security officer, Mr Wesley, and two pilots. Dr Reddy’s helicopter pilot, Group Captain Bhatia, an Indian Air Force pilot on deputation to the state government, last contacted air traffic control (ATC) at the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport at 9.12 pm and did not report any emergency. Group Captain Bhatia did not put out any emergency or distress call. The ATC reported to the state government that contact had been lost with the helicopter at 9.36 am, when the pilot did not make his next contact. At that time, the helicopter was over the dense Nallamalai jungles near Srisailam dam, about 60 nautical miles from Hyderabad. It was carrying fuel for three hours. The helicopter lost contact with air traffic control flying over Nallamalai forest, in the state’s erstwhile Naxal zone. The Maoists have now been largely flushed out there, and intelligence officials claim there is only a small Maoist dalam (unit) there, comprising two men and two women. Prakasam SP Naveen Chand claimed that there was little dalam movement in the area, and that it was "unarmed and moving like civilians." The government deployed its own helicopter for the search and, as the hours and anxiety grew, the Indian Air Force stepped in. By noon, the Union home ministry had alerted the defence ministry and seven IAF helicopters were deployed to the region. Two helicopters from Hakimpet withdrew due to inclement weather, but the helicopters deployed from Bengaluru kept up the search till sunset. "There is no good news yet. We are keeping our fingers crossed. Our prayers are with Rajasekhar Reddy and his family," Union home minister P. Chidambaram told reporters even as the home ministry ordered extensive search operations by Central paramilitary forces and rushed in 5,000 CRPF men. Police forces from Guntur, Prakasam, Mahbubnagar and Kurnool districts, which border the area, were also deployed, The elite anti-Naxal Greyhound force and the anti-Naxal central Cobra force are also scouring the Nallamalai forests, sources said. The Union home ministry, citing locals, reported the last sighting of the helicopter at Iskala village in Pamulapadu block and Atmakur in Kurnool district. Another sighting reported by the state government was between Atmakur and Bandi Atmakar, close to Rollapenta in Kurnool district, between 9.15 am and 9.30 am. The IAF later launched a Sukhoi Su-31MKI fighter aircraft equipped with advanced synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to track down the helicopter. The aircraft returned to Bareily, where the data is being analysed. Reports said the Sukhois would continue searching through the night. The Indian Army launched about 300 hundred troops, including two columns of specialised Ghatak forces, into Andhra Pradesh’s Nallamalai forests to search for the helicopter. Sources said the Army personnel were equipped with hand-held thermal imagers and night-vision goggles to search through Wednesday night for any signs of the helicopter. The Indian Space Research Organisation flew a B-200 Beechcraft over the Nallamalai forests. The aircraft flew back to the National Remote Sensing Agency, Hyderabad, with some 41 images that were being processed throught the night. Till late Wednesday night, though, all efforts had proved unsuccessful. The missing helicopter is equipped with an emergency location transmitter (ELT) which is activated if the helicopter makes a hard landing. ELT signals can be tracked by Isro but it remains to be seen whether any ELT signals are being transmitted. The Centre also deployed an aircraft that can pick out metal on the ground. This aircraft can be refuelled mid-air, which means it can operate for long stretches of time. Minister of state for defence M.M. Pallam Raju said an additional Sukhoi fighter aircraft had been kept in readiness at Mumbai. National security adviser M.K. Narayanan said there is no information so far of any Naxalite involvement in the incident. Four IAF choppers will resume search operations from dawn on Thursday. The IAF also despatched a Dornier and Avro aircraft to search for the missing helicopter. The AP government sought the help of the US defence department to locate the missing helicopter through real-time satellite imagery. "We don’t have such satellites hence we are seeking US help. We are in touch with the Union defence ministry and the US defence department in this regard," said AP chief secretary P. Ramakant Reddy. US ambassador to India Timothy Roemer was in touch several times with the home minister. "He has offered US help and assistance in search operations and his thoughts and prayers go out to everyone involved," said US embassy spokesperson Elizabeth Fitzsimmons. Andhra Pradesh finance minister K. Rosaiah, who is the seniormost state Cabinet minister and the CM’s most trusted lieutenant, took charge of the situation and was monitoring it along with state home minister Sabita Indra Reddy and other ministers, besides chief secretary P. Ramakant Reddy, at the Secretariat.
Source : The Asian Age

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