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35 hours later, Arunachal chief minister still missing

Sunday May 01, 2011 07:43:08 PM, IANS

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Itanagar: Bad weather Sunday forced the Indian Air Force (IAF) to suspend its search for the helicopter which disappeared about 35 hours earlier with Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu, but Indian and Bhutanese troops continued their search in hostile conditions.

With concern rising in Arunachal Pradesh and elsewhere over the fate of Dorjee and four others in the Pawan Hans chopper that disappeared Saturday morning, officials overseeing the search had their fingers crossed.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) released imageries of the mountainous area taken by its satellites, but the biggest dampener was the inclement weather, particularly after darkness set in.

The IAF initially planned to press two MI-17 helicopters from Tawang near the China border, from where the chief minister had taken off, but only one could take off.

Only one MI 17 made two sorties but returned to Tawang due to bad weather, Ranjeeb Sahoo, IAF spokesman at the Eastern Air Command headquarters in Shillong, told IANS.

Two Cheetah helicopters were also to take off from Tezpur in Assam but were held up due to bad weather.

Two Sukhoi-30 aircraft, however, flew over a wide area and completed aerial mapping to get clues that may lead the search teams to the missing chopper -- and its occupants if they are still alive.

On the ground, Bhutanese troops backed by locals searched the terrain for any sign of the chopper in Bhutanese territory, official S. Duba told IANS by phone from an area that adjoins Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.

Backing the Bhutanese in the search were Indian soldiers and men from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) as well as Sashastra Seema Bal.

The AS350 B-3 helicopter lost contact with ground control after taking off from Tawang at 9.50 a.m. Saturday.

The last communication was at 10.15 a.m. as it flew over the Sela Pass along the Chinese border, perched at an altitude of 13,700 feet.

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

Dhondup's younger sister Yeshmi Lamu is the lone woman occupant in the helicopter. She was reportedly on her way to Itanagar, the state capital, for a medical checkup.

The others on board included crew members Captain J.S. Babbar and Captain K.S. Malick as well as Khandu's security officer Yeshi Choddak.

"Everybody is praying for the chief minister and the others," civil rights leader Baman Felix said.

He wanted to know why the Arunachal Pradesh governor J.J. Singh made "an irresponsible statement" Saturday that the chopper had safely landed -- a statement that turned out to be false.

There were also reports of the chopper landing in eastern Bhutan. This too was denied.

The helicopter carrying Khandu was a single-engine chopper. In case of an engine failure, there are slim chances of the helicopter making a safe landing.

"We have not been able to contact our pilots," a despondent Pawan Hans official said in Guwahati.

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

Pawan Hans has been operating five helicopters across Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura and daily Guwahati-Tawang services for nine years.

It is one of the major lifelines of landlocked Arunachal Pradesh.

Meanwhile, central ministers Mukul Wasnik and V. Narayanasamy have arrived in Itanagar to oversee the search operations following a directive from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.





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