An army expedition to retrieve the bodies of 98 victims of an Indian Air Force plane crash in 1968 has failed due to hostile climatic condition in the icy terrain of Lahaul and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, dashing the hopes of their families.
A total of 102 defence personnel, including six crew members, were killed when the Indian Air Force AN-12 aircraft crashed on the 17,400-feet high Dakka Glacier in the Chanderbhaga ranges in Lahaul and Spiti district Feb 7, 1968. Only four bodies have so far been found.
"We have not found any wreckage of the aircraft. But we got some vital leads that will help in future expeditions," Major Vasudevan of the Dogra Scouts, who was leading the expedition, told IANS on phone.
The 20-member expedition, comprising mostly mountaineers drawn from the Dogra Scouts, conducted the search operation called 'Op Phoenix' that ended last week.
"This time we were hopeful of retrieving the wreckage due to scanty snow in the region in the last winter, but hostile climatic conditions and thin oxygen made the expedition tough," he said.
The cause of the crash is still a mystery as the plane's black box has not been recovered. The wreckage is believed to be buried in the ice mass spread over an area seven-km-long and half-a-km wide.
The expedition team had spent a week acclimatising at its base camp at Bathal in Lahaul and Spiti district, 350 km from in Shimla. From the base camp, it trudged 14 km daily up and down treacherous peaks to reach the accident spot.
In July 2003, local trekkers on the way to scale the Chanderbhaga ranges spotted a body and some aircraft wreckage. The body had been partially reduced to a skeleton.
A service book and a letter recovered from the army uniform and overcoat on the body led to the identification of the victim as Sepoy Beli Ram. After this, the army and the air force carried out search operations in the area but found nothing.
Expeditions mounted in 2005 and 2006 also yielded no success. In 2007, the search parties managed to retrieve three bodies from the accident spot. Last year there was no expedition due to heavy snow in the region.
The entire Lahaul and Spiti district, populated mainly by tribals, remains cut off from the rest of the country for more than six months of the year owing to heavy snowfall. The climatic conditions are harsh as much of the land falls under a cold desert.