New Delhi, Jan. 18: An Indian Air Force helicopter was hit in firing by suspected Maoists as it was landing to evacuate casualties in an encounter between police and the rebels in Chhattisgarh today.
A state police wireless operator who was in the helicopter was injured. An intelligence source said the aircrew had abandoned the chopper with the police wireless operator in it and left.
A CoBRA (commando) team of the CRPF later reached the site and secured the helicopter and found the wireless operator with a bullet injury in his leg.
Sources said the state police as well as the CRPF were upset that the aircrew left the injured wireless operator behind. It is not clear why the aircrew did so.
The Union home secretary has announced a reward of Rs 5 lakh for the CoBRA team for rescuing the injured person and securing the chopper.
The four-member crew of the helicopter was reported to be safe at Chinta Gufa police station in South Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada, about a 4km trek from the encounter site in Timilwada.
The IAF is mandated to open fire if it is fired at by the Maoists. But the Mi-17 1V helicopter, that can be armed with a medium machine gun and rockets, was not used as a gunship, air force sources said. Use of military firepower will mark a serious escalation in counter-Maoist operations.
“The helicopter was hit twice as it was about to land. It was about to lose control but the crew managed to manoeuvre and land successfully in a field,” an IAF spokesperson said.
A policeman was killed and two others were injured in the encounter between the Chhattisgarh armed police and the insurgents.
The helicopter could not complete its mission. It had a hydraulic systems failure, a generator failure and a fuel leak.
State police sources said the chopper landed about a kilometre away from its designated spot. It was hit twice by bullets and had a hard landing but was said to be flight-worthy. The helicopter had gone off the radar for some time. It was said to have landed in Timilwada around 4.40pm.
Timilwada is a recently built police post in the Chinta Gufa police station area. State troopers had objected to the poor infrastructure and lack of security in the post.
The helicopter took off from Jagdalpur after 4pm — too late in the day for a flying machine without night-vision devices — in response to an emergency call to evacuate casualties.
The Mi-17 1V helicopters deployed by the IAF for counter-Maoist operations are being replaced by Mi-17 V5 helicopters imported from Russia last year that are capable of flying at night.
On December 21, 2011, Maoists had fired at and damaged a similar helicopter not far from the site of today’s encounter. Then, too, the IAF was evacuating state and central police troopers after an encounter. The crew of that helicopter was given gallantry awards.