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Star-crossed on campaign trail

Bangalore, April 17: Leading south Indian actor Soundarya and three others were killed this morning when their aircraft crashed minutes after taking off on a campaign journey for the BJP, which she had joined recently.

The 32-year-old, who has starred in about 70 films, was on her way to Karimnagar in Andhra Pradesh. Her brother Amarnath, BJP worker Ramesh Kadam and the pilot, Capt. Joy Philips, were the other victims.

Officials said the single-engine Cessna-180 crashed two minutes after taking off at 11.05 am on the fields of the University of Agricultural Sciences on Bangalore’s outskirts.

Witnesses said they saw fumes from the engine as the plane hurtled down. Two labourers working on the fields were the first to reach the plane but, before they could wrench open the door, it burst into flames.

In Delhi, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said the “hand of destiny has snatched her away”. Karnataka chief minister S.M. Krishna delayed an election tour and rushed to the spot.

Arvind Sharma, CEO of Agni Aerospace, which owned the Cessna, said it was bought in 1981 and was certified for airworthiness till July 2004. Since the plane did not have a black box, the cause of the tragedy will perhaps never be known.

Sharma believes it was either due to a bird-hit or a technical snag.

Last month, a helicopter carrying three Congress leaders crash-landed in Gujarat, but there were no casualties.

Gloom descended on the BJP’s Karnataka unit soon after news of Soundarya’s death came in. “I am shattered…” said state unit chief Ananth Kumar.

Kumar and BJP state in-charge Arun Jaitley visited the airstrip and consoled relatives of the victims. The director-general of civil aviation has begun an investigation into the crash.

Soundarya, whose real name was Soumya, joined the BJP earlier this year at the behest of Amarnath, an RSS worker who has been active in the BJP since 1990.

She was a student of medicine when she decided to become an actor in 1992. The Bangalore-born star started her career with a Kannada film, but struck gold in the Telugu film industry.

Soundarya acted opposite the biggest male stars from the south like Rajnikanth, Chiranjeevi and Venkatesh. In 1999, she starred in the Hindi film Sooryavansham opposite Amitabh Bachchan.

She won a national award in 2001 for her role in Dweepa, a Kannada film she also produced.

Soundarya was married to G.S. Raghu, who owns a small software firm. They would have celebrated their first marriage anniversary on April 27.

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