The fate of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy remained uncertain on Wednesday night after a helicopter carrying him went missing over a dense forest area since the morning, prompting a continuing massive search operation.
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The 60-year-old Congress leader, who led the party to a remarkable victory in the recent Assembly and Lok Sabha polls, left Hyderabad for Chitoor at 8.35 AM in a twin-engined Bell helicopter which lost contact an hour later. There was no trace of the helicopter, which got lost in bad weather.
Amid fears that the helicopter may have force landed or crashed, the IAF's Sukhoi 30MK1 aircraft with synthetic aperture radar for high resolution ground mapping even at night and a pilotless low-flying ISRO aircraft were scouring the thick Nallamalai forests in Kurnool district in the Rayalaseema region.
Throughout the day as many as seven helicopters searched the area but met with no no success. In the evening, several thousand CRPF and other police personnel were deployed for a night-long ground search.
As hours passed by worries about the safety of the Chief Minister, his Principal Secretary Subramanyam, Chief
Security Officer A S C Wesley and the two pilots mounted as no contact was established.
The most optimistic scenario was that the VVIP helicopter may have been forced to land and those on board may be stranded in the jungles, where Naxals could pose a lurking danger though.
The Andhra Pradesh government has sought Centre's help to get US Defence Department help in securing real-time imagery as Indian efforts in this regard were poor due to heavy cloud formation.
Three Indian Air Force helicopters from Bangalore and a private chopper from Nellore scoured the area where the helicopter is believed to have gone missing. Two helicopters from Air Command in Secunderabad returned because of incessant rains.
State Chief Secretary P Ramakant Reddy told reporters that the helicopter was last seen by some people between Atmakur and Bandi Atmakur in Kurnool district before it went missing.
Asked whether the helicopter was air worthy and whether it had a proper certificate, he said this was not the time for such questions. The first priority is welfare of the Chief Minister and other things can come later.
In New Delhi, Home Minister P Chidambaram said the search operation by helicopters has been called off because of light and weather conditions and will resume on Thursday morning.
"There is no good news yet. We are keeping our fingers crossed. Our prayers are with Rajasekhara Reddy and his family," he told reporters.
However, Chidambaram said the search on foot by forest and revenue officials was on around the point where they think the helicopter was last seen. Police and CRPF personnel were also moving on foot. They would reach there in an hour or so.
The helicopter, which took off from old Begumpet airport at 8.35 AM and lost radio contact at 9.35 AM, was heading for Chitoor district, over 600 kilometres from here in the Southwestern end of the state, where he was to attend some
The helicopter was crossing the Nallamalai forests towards Ongole in Prakasam district and the pilot may have encountered high-speed winds and inclement weather, the Chief Secretary said.
He said the special anti-naxalite force Grey Hounds and the Andhra Pradesh Special Police battalions were being sent
to the forest area for joining the search operation.
The Chief Secretary said there was no satellite telephone in the helicopter. State Finance Minister K Rosaiah said President Pratibha Patil called from Moscow to enquire about the whereabouts of the Chief Minister as did Vice President Hamid Ansari from New Delhi.
The Prime Minister's office was in hourly contact with the state government and Congress president Sonia Gandhi spoke
to the Chief Minister's wife. Rahul Gandhi is also in touch with the Chief Minister's son, who is an MP.
Gandhi deputed Law Minister M Verappa Moily and Minister of State in the PMO Prthiviraj Chavan to Hyderabad to monitor the search and rescue operation.