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Across state,all fingers crossed for a miracle

Almost 24 hours after losing contact with his helicopter over Naxal-infested Nallamala forests in Kurnool,hopes of finding Andhra CM Y S Rajasekhara Reddy began to fade despite a massive search operation.

Written by Express News Service | Hyderabad |
September 2, 2009 7:39:35 am

Almost twenty-four hours after losing contact with his helicopter over the Naxal-infested Nallamala forests in Kurnool district,hopes of finding Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy began to fade despite a massive search operation on the ground and mapping of the area late at night by an IAF Sukhoi-30 MKI.

In Hyderabad,there were anxious faces all around and Home Minister Savita Indra Reddy was close to tears as it dawned on everybody that “only a miracle” could now see Reddy return safe from the forests.

Late tonight,41 photos,snapped by a remote sensing ISRO aircraft from Bangalore which made two sorties over Nallamala forests,were rushed to the National Remote Sensing Agency in Hyderabad. “The photos are highly technical and need to be analysed. It will take up to four hours and we are hoping they will provide some information and location about the missing chopper” Chief Secretary P Ramakanth Reddy said.

On the ground in the Nallamala ranges,search parties were fanning out in every direction in heavy rain — men from the forest department,police,paramilitary,Chenchu tribal guides and trackers were pressed into service. The Army’s Southern Command flew in troops and a contingent of commandos of the anti-Naxal force Octopus,equipped with night-vision goggles and search lights,joined the search. By midnight,the force numbers had swelled to over 800 personnel.

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Officials said part of the area where the chopper is suspected to have gone missing is flooded because the Srisailam reservoir is overflowing. Eleven choppers from the IAF,Navy,Army and private companies,deployed earlier,had to be recalled due to bad weather. They will set out again tomorrow morning.

Chenchu tribals who live in the forest have been asked to join the search. The government also contacted former Naxalite commander Gopanna — he had surrendered — in the hope that he could reach out to his former colleagues to bring word on the missing chopper.

It is learnt that the state government contacted the Defence Ministry for IAF help nearly two hours after the helicopter went missing. South Block was alerted at 11.30 am as there was confusion in Hyderabad with reports saying that Reddy was safe,that his son had spoken to him.

Top government sources said it appeared that the helicopter had deviated from its flight path,possibly because of bad weather,and moved east rather than sticking to the south route. It was this move that took it to the forest area from the densely populated one.

Incidentally,the Meteorological Centre,Hyderabad,had warned of “rather heavy rain or thundershowers at many places over Rayalaseema,Telangana and coastal Andhra,and heavy rainfall warning over certain parts of Rayalaseema.” The flight path of the CM’s chopper was to take it over three districts of Rayalaseema — Kurnool,Kadapa and part of Chittoor.

Reddy,along with Principal Secretary P Subramanium,Chief Security Officer John Wesley and two pilots,took off from Begumpet airport at 8.38 am in a twin-engine government Bell helicopter. The helicopter’s last contact was at 9.13 am over Kurnool district as it headed for Chittoor which was to be the first stop — it was to land at 10.45 am — on Reddy’s two-day mass contact programme across three districts. In May this year,he led the Congress to an impressive second consecutive victory in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.

In New Delhi,Union Home Minister P Chidambaram told reporters: “There is no good news yet. We are keeping our fingers crossed. Our prayers are with Rajasekhara Reddy and his family.”

The Home Ministry has rushed 5,000 CRPF personnel to the area from nearby Chhattisgarh and Orissa to conduct searches in the area.

In Hyderabad,state Finance Minister K Rosaiah appealed to people in Chittoor,Mahbubnagar,Prakasam and Kurnool districts to provide any information they may have on the missing helicopter.

This is what officials in Hyderabad have been able to piece together:

• 9.13 am: The chopper’s pilot and co-pilot radio last position from near the Nallamala forest in southeast Kurnool, proceeding towards Chittoor district.

• 10 am: Kurnool District Magistrate’s office is informed of a chopper flying low in heavy rain in Atmakur Mandal area and trying to land nearby.

• 11 am: Ground teams rushed by Kurnool District Magistrate fail to find chopper near Bhavakacharla where some villagers said they saw one.

• 11.30 am: Two Army Mi-17s take off from Hyderabad to search for the chopper but return due to bad weather.

• 12 noon: Kurnool Collector Mukesh Kumar Meena reports that there is no sign of the chopper in 50 km radius from spot where the chopper is reported missing.

• 1 pm: Search operation is launched. Over 200 forest officials,Chenchu tribal guides and trackers,revenue and police teams fan out in a 100-km radius.

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