Monday, May 2, 2011

Search on for Arunachal CM, satellite images offer no clue

Updated on Monday, May 02, 2011, 00:43

Itanagar: The helicopter carrying Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu remained untraced for the second day on Sunday even as search operations on the ground by army and paramilitary personnel in both India and Bhutan continued without much success. 

"So far there are no clues or reports of the missing helicopter although we are leaving no stone unturned in our effort in locating the chopper," central minister V Narayanasamy told journalists after a meeting of the crisis management team with the entire state cabinet and top civil and police officials. 

Narayanasamy and another central minister, Mukul Wasnik, arrived in Itanagar on Sunday afternoon on the express orders of the prime minister to oversee and monitor the search operations. 

"Bad weather hampered aerial surveys. We were in constant touch with the Bhutan government and are trying to locate exactly where the helicopter could have landed," the minister said. 

The Pawan Hans AS350 B-3 helicopter carrying the chief minister and four others went missing after it took off from Tawang at 9.50 am on Saturday. The last radio contact with the ground was about 20 to 20 minutes after take-off as it flew over the Sela Pass along the Chinese border perched at an altitude of 13,700 feet. 

The Indian Air Force on Sunday morning began search operations to locate the missing helicopter, even as Indian and Bhutanese soldiers too launched a massive operation to track down the chopper. 

An MI-17 and two Cheetah helicopters were pressed into service on Sunday morning, but the search was abandoned due to bad weather. 

"Search operations would continue Monday subject to the weather conditions," Ranjeeb Sahoo, spokesperson of the Eastern Air Command of the Indian Air Force based in Meghalaya state capital Shillong said. 

"Two satellites from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) had taken images but the images were hazy due to bad weather. By midnight we expect a detailed report from the ISRO," senior Arunachal Pradesh minister Jarbom Gamling said. 

Meanwhile, two Sukhoi-30 aircraft from a base in Bareilly completed aerial mapping over Arunachal Pradesh in an attempt to get definite clues about the missing helicopter. 

"The two Sukhoi's completed aerial mapping and have since landed in their base. The images would be analysed and then we expect something concrete maybe by tomorrow," Likha Saaya, a ruling Congress party MLA, said. 

A sense of despondency prevails in Arunachal Pradesh. 

"We are hoping against hope now to get some news about the helicopter and its occupants. There are prayers being held in all the Buddhist monasteries for some good news," Congress MLA from Tawang Tsewang Dhondup told said. 

Yeshmi Lamu, the lone woman occupant in the helicopter is the younger sister of Dhondhup. 

"She was in the helicopter with the chief minister for a medical checkup in Itanagar." 

"Everybody is praying for the chief minister and the other four people. We also want a clarification from the governor for making such an irresponsible statement yesterday about the safe landing of the helicopter," Baman Felix, a civil rights leader in Arunachal Pradesh said. 

The helicopter in question, the AS350 B-3, is a single-engine chopper. In case of an engine failure, there are very slim chances of the helicopter making a safe landing. 

The incident comes just days after another Pawan Hans helicopter crashed in Tawang April 19, killing 17 people and injuring six.

The Pawan Hans Helicopter Services Limited (PHHL) has been operating five helicopters across Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura and daily Guwahati-Tawang services for the past nine years. It is one of the major lifelines of landlocked Arunachal Pradesh.

Arunachal has witnessed a large number of air crashes. In November 1997, the then minister of state for defence NVN Somu, Major General Ramesh Nagpal and two others died when their Cheetah helicopter hit a 1,300 feet peak, 40 kilometers from Tawang.

In May 2001, Arunachal Pradesh Education Minister Dera Natung and five others were killed when their Pawan Hans aircraft crashed near Tawang because of poor visibility.

In 2009, an IAF AN-32 aircraft crashed at Mechunka killing all 13 defence personnel on board. Eleven Air Force personnel and an Army Lieutenant Colonel were killed when an Air Force MI-17 helicopter crashed near the China frontier on November 19, last year a minute after take-off.

Khandu, who had served in the intelligence wing of the Indian Army, was sworn on April 9, 2007 as the fifth chief minister of the state, replacing Gegong Apang. 


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