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Chopper carrying YSR goes missing, search continues till late night

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy
A helicopter carrying Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy and four others went missing this morning and day-long search operations failed to yield any information, raising concerns about his safety.

The helicopter, with Mr Reddy, 60, and four others on board -- including the pilot, the co-pilot, an official and a security officer -- took off from the old Begumpet airport in Hyderabad at about 8.30 am and was scheduled to land in Chitoor at 10.40 am.

Air traffic control lost radio contact with the twin-engined Bell 430 AP helicopter around 9.35 am and after that there has been no contact with the Chief Minister and the officials accompanying him. Reports said air traffic control had not received any distress signal from the chopper.

The Chief Minister, who had led the Congress to an impressive victory in the recent Assembly elections to win a second term in office, was planning to visit the Rachabanda area today to meet people affected by the drought as part of a month-long tour programme to boost the confidence of the farmers.

According to various reports, his helicopter was over the thickly-forested Nallamalla hills, where it was raining heavily and visibility was low, when it went missing. The forests are infested with Naxalites.

"There is no good news yet. We are keeping our fingers crossed," Union Home Minister P Chidambaram told reporters before going to brief Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi about the situation. Mrs Gandhi is understood to have talked to the Chief Minister's wife over the telephone.

"Our prayers are with Mr Rajasekhara Reddy and his family," the Home Minister said.

He said the search for the missing chopper by several helicopters had been stopped for the day because of bad weather and fading light and that it would resume at first light tomorrow.

Meanwhile, a large force of paramilitary and police personnel have been rushed to the densely forested area where the helicopter had been sighted in the air by villagers around 9.15 this morning and Mr Chidambaram said he had requested the Andhra Pradesh Government to try and begin the search operations on the ground in the night itself with whatever light that could be arranged.

Mr Chidambaram said a large contingent of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was expected to reach the area soon.

"Let's hope for the best, let's pray for the best," he said.

During the day, there was a fair bit of confusion with some reports suggesting that the helicopter had landed in Kurnool district, but these turned out to be incorrect later.

Late this evening, State Finance Minister K Rosaiah and Chief Secretary Ramakanth Reddy told the media, at their second press conference during the day, that there was no information about the missing helicopter so far.

Mr Reddy said the State Government had received information that some villagers had seen the aircraft between 9.15 and 9.30 am while it was flying over Atmakoor in Kurnool district and appeared to be heading towards Prakasam district.

He said the State Government had requested the National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) to use its low-flying aircraft in the area to try and locate the helicopter. The aircraft could fly at altitudes of just 1250 metres and cover an area of 250 sq km, he said.

Mr Reddy said the Government was also in touch with the US authorities, through the Central Government, for high-resolution satellite images of the area where the helicopter was last sighted. These satellites could provide real-time images, he said.

The Chief Secretary said the assistance of the Army had also been sought in the ground search operations.

He said President Pratibha Patil, who is currently in Moscow, had enquired about the Chief Minister, as had Vice-President Mohammad Hamid Ansari, the Prime Minister, several Central Ministers and Governors and Chief Ministers of different states.

Meanwhile, the Congress party is understood to have asked Union Law and Justice Minister Veerappa Moily to rush to Hyderabad. Mr Prithviraj Chavan, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office, is also heading for the Andhra Pradesh capital, sources said.

The Chief Secretary said earlier in the day that seven helicopters from the Indian Air Force bases in Hyderabad and Bangalore and the State Government as well as a civilian chopper were deployed in the search operations.

He said the State Government was also in touch with the Prime Minister's Office and the office of the Congress President in Delhi.
File photo of a Bell 430
File photo of a Bell 430

Some of the helicopters had to return to base because of inclement weather in the densely forested area where the Chief Minister's chopper had gone missing. As daylight started fading, the search operations acquired a sense of urgency.

The State Government appealed to people in the Kurnool and adjoining districts to help the authorities in the search operations and report to the nearest police station if they found any information.

"It is possible that because of the strong winds and heavy rains, it is possible it may have landed in some unfamiliar area. If you land in an unfamiliar forest area, getting out will be very difficult," the official said.

In Delhi, Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari told newspersons that the party was in touch with the State Government as well as the party's state unit.

"It is an evolving situation and they are doing everything they can to see a successful resolution of the crisis," he added.

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