Saturday, September 05, 2009

Naxals can hit low flying choppers, say officials

Vishwa Mohan, TNN 4 September 2009, 04:19am IST

NEW DELHI: Naxalites may not have the capability to shoot down high-flying choppers but they are equipped to bring down helicopters flying at a
height of around 1,000 feet -- turning all winged machines vulnerable while taking off and landing.

Although Y S Rajasekhara Reddy's chopper crash over the Nallamala forest area was an accident, security agencies consider the naxal-infested hilly and forested zones in Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand quite dangerous for low-flying helicopters and suggest pilots to try to maintain a height of around 3,000 feet and above.

A senior home ministry official said, "Pilots of all state and private agencies are sensitised to this fact keeping in mind the vulnerability of these areas. Maoists have high-powered machine guns with which they can easily shoot down low-flying choppers while positioning themselves strategically atop any nearby hill."

Security agencies keep the areas surrounding the helipads secure with proper deployment. "However, similar security cannot be provided in areas where a pilot may do forced landing in emergency. Only earmarked helipads can be made secure through area domination," said the official.

Police and paramilitary forces had initiated the sensitisation exercise in November last year when they witnessed the first-ever incident of shooting by Maoists at an Indian Air Force helicopter in Bijapur district in Chhattisgarh. The IAF chopper was fired upon indiscriminately while taking off from a village in Bastar with sealed electronic voting machines (EVMs) during the state Assembly polls.

The helicopter's rotor blade, engine and fuselage were hit by bullets but the pilot -- Sqn Ldr T K Chaudhary -- somehow managed to fly it to safety in Jagdalpur, saving lives of passengers including poll officials. However, flight engineer Mustafa Ali lost his life in the incident.

Naxalites had later celebrated the incident and highlighted it in their quarterly bulletin -- Prabhat -- as a "historic event" in their armed struggle, mentioning it as an example of their being able to hit helicopters at will. The bulletin, being brought out clandestinely by CPI (Maoist)'s Dandkaranya Special Zonal Committee, clearly stated that the Red ultras had got capability to shoot down choppers and they would certainly do it in future.

National security advisor M K Narayanan, however, on Wednesday ruled out the possibility of naxals having such capability. While talking to a television channel, he, in the context of the CM's chopper accident, said, "Naxal strike seems extremely improbable. I would almost entirely rule it out. I do not think the naxalites have the capability to bring down helicopters."

Explaining what Narayanan said, a security official on Thursday said the NSA's statement might be valid for high-flying choppers, specifically those flying beyond 3,000 feet. But it cannot be true for low-flying helicopters as the naxals had already shown what they could do with their light machine guns while positioning themselves on hills.

Why cannot government employ the same kind of machinery to hit naxal hideouts in dense forest areas what they used during the massive search operation of the Andhra CM's missing chopper in the past 24 hours?

An official said, "We are now getting satellite images of these areas with the help of ISRO. But we cannot use air-power to hit the tribal hamlets as it will result in civilian casualties. It is difficult during ground searches to segregate Maoists from the local tribal population if they do not carry arms."

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