Chopper carrying Arunachal chief minister still missing (Night Lead)

May 1st, 2011 - 3:47 am ICT by IANS  

Manmohan Singh Itanagar, April 30 (IANS) A helicopter carrying Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu and four other people on board, missing since Saturday morning, was still untraced till the night despite India and Bhutan launching a massive operation to track it, officials said.

The Pawan Hans AS350 B-3 helicopter had taken off from Tawang at 9.50 am and lost communication with the ground after it flew past the Sela Pass along the Chinese border about 20 to 25 minutes later.

“The official position is there is no confirmation or news about the helicopter. There has been no direct contact with any of the five people on board and we really don’t know any details as of now,” Arunachal MP Takam Sanjay told IANS.

“The fact of the matter is we don’t know yet where the helicopter is.”

The helicopter was scheduled to land in Itanagar, Arunachal’ capital city, at 11.30 am.

There were media reports in the afternoon quoting Arunchal Pradesh Governor Gen (retd) J.J. Singh and the state chief secretary that the helicopter had landed safely with all the five passengers.

There were also reports of the chopper landing somewhere in eastern Bhutan adjoining Tawang district due to bad weather and that the same helicopter was flying back to Guwahati with the chief minister on board.

Bhutan, however, denied any Indian helicopter landed in its territory, but said a search operation was launched following request from New Delhi.

“We have also heard through the media about the helicopter landing in Bhutan, but we don’t have any reports of an Indian helicopter landing in our territory. But we have deployed troops and local villagers to see if any helicopter had landed here,” S. Duba, deputy commissioner of Trashiyangtse district in Bhutan adjoining Tawang, told IANS by phone.

“Ground search operations are on in the remote areas along the flying route and aerial missions would begin tomorrow,” a senior Arunachal Pradesh government official said.

In Shillong, an Indian Air Force (IAF) spokesman said search operations to locate the missing helicopter had been called off due to bad weather and would be resumed Sunday, an official said Saturday.

“We have suspended our rescue and search operations for the day due to bad weather but we will resume it tomorrow (Sunday) again,” IAF spokesman Ranjeeb Sahoo told IANS here.

Two IAF Cheetah helicopters were pressed into service for search operations.

Apart from Khandu, the people on board included crew members Captain J.S. Babbar and Captain K.S. Malick, Khandu’s security officer Yeshi Choddak and Yeshi Lamu, sister of Tawang legislator Tsewang Dhondup.

The Indian government is in constant touch with Bhutan to find out about the missing chopper.

“We are in constant touch with the central government at the highest level. Initially we are also told the chopper had landed in Bhutan, but now there are conflicting reports coming in,” Sanjay said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Saturday spoke to the Arunachal Pradesh governor and enquired about the incident.

The prime minister, who returned to the national capital Monday evening after addressing a rally in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, was briefed by National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon about the search operations being carried out, according to the prime minister’s media advisor Harish Khare.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi also spoke to Dorjee’s wife and son, party spokesman Tom Vadakkan told IANS.

The helicopter in question, 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.

Pawan Hans denied allegations that it was operating a fleet of old choppers in the region, and said the helicopter that carried Dorjee was only four months old and was on the VIP service.

The incident came just days after another Pawan Hans helicopter crashed in Tawang on 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 the landlocked Arunachal Pradesh.

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