Hopes for the safety of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy were fading along with daylight Wednesday evening, eight hours after his helicopter went missing amid bad weather in a densely forested Maoist stronghold, triggering a desperate search by the military and police.
There were fears that the falling darkness would impede rescue operations by the five Indian Air Force and one private helicopter that had joined the hunt for the missing chopper. It was carrying YSR, as the 60-year-old chief minister is known, and his special secretary, his security officer besides two pilots from Hyderabad to Chittoor, 588 km away and closer to Tamil Nadu.
Flanked by Finance Minister K. Rosiah, Chief Secretary Ramakanth Reddy urged people in the Nallamalla forest area that covers Kurnool and adjoining districts to alert the police if they learnt anything about the helicopter.
YSR's fate caused tremors in New Delhi, where the office of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi were in touch with the state government, Reddy told reporters here.
The state government had also alerted both the home and defence ministries in New Delhi.
The chief secretary said two air force helicopters from Secunderabad and three from Bangalore were looking for the chief minister's helicopter along with a private chopper from Andhra Pradesh.
Andhra Pradesh also urged New Delhi to send an unmanned aircraft to the area.
The state government had lost touch with the chief minister at around 9.35 a.m.
"So far we have not been able to get any confirmation (about the chief minister). It is possible that because of the strong winds and heavy rains, it may have landed in some unfamiliar area," Reddy said. "If you land in an unfamiliar forested area, getting out will be very difficult."
He urged people living in the forested region to "kindly help us. If you get any signal, any reliable information, contact the nearest police station".
YSR had taken off from Hyderabad to attend a function in Chittoor Wednesday morning. The helicopter went off the radar amid inclement weather, causing panic in Hyderabad.
Shortly before before the finance minister and chief secretary spoke, there were conflicting versions about YSR's fate.
Social Welfare Minister P. Subhash Chandra Bose said the chief minister was safe after the helicopter landed in Kurnool district, but police both in Hyderabad and Kurnool declined to back the minister's claim.
"We have information that the chief minister is safe," said Chandra Bose. He did reveal any details.
Congress MP from Nandyal S.P.Y. Reddy, however, told a television channel that he was yet to receive any information about YSR's whereabouts from the police.
A high-level meeting was held at the state secretariat here after the helicopter went missing.
It was attended by Home Minister P. Sabita Indra Reddy, Chief Secretary Ramakant Reddy, Director General of Police S.S.P. Yadav, the chief minister's close aide and Rajya Sabha MP K.V.P. Ramchandra Rao and senior state ministers.
A doctor by training, YSR is presently one of the most influential leaders in the Congress after leading the party again to a spectacular win in the Lok Sabha and assembly elections in April-May this year.
Elected to the state assembly for the fifth time, YSR is also a four-time Lok Sabha member and holds the record of never losing an election.