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Andhra seeks copter lift - Rebel-hit state wants choppers to carry troops

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By G.S. RADHAKRISHNA WITH INPUTS FROM SUJAN DUTTA IN DELHI
  • Published 9.07.10
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Funeral procession of Maoist leader Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad who was killed in an encounter

Hyderabad, July 8: The Andhra government has requested the Centre for troop-carrier helicopters to be stationed in the state for use in anti-Maoist operations along the borders with Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra.

Chief minister K. Rosaiah has written two letters to P. Chidambaram and personally spoken to the home minister but such choppers have not yet been sent to the state — considered a model in tackling the Maoist threat.

“We need it to move troops, especially our Greyhounds (the elite anti-rebel squad) faster to the border areas so we can stop the rebels’ infiltration and stall their hit-and-run operations,” state police chief R.R. Girish Kumar said.

Making its case for such helicopters — now requisitioned from the neighbouring rebel-affected states whenever the need arises — the K. Rosaiah-headed Congress government has pointed out that the guerrillas have laid landmines along the borders with Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Maharashtra to stall the Greyhounds.

“We used to take the river route but after the Balimela incident (when the Greyhounds were ambushed in the pocket along the Orissa border three years ago), we have been advised to only fly. Also, if we had such a troop carrier, we could have caught Maoist leader Azad alive by dropping commandos in the area,” said a Greyhound commandant, referring to last week’s death of the top rebel leader in an encounter in Adilabad.

The helicopters are Russian origin Mi-17s. Six Mi-17s — four of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and two of the Border Security Force — are currently being used in counter-Naxalite operations in Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand. The air headquarters, the IAF hub, in Delhi has a created a task force headed by a group captain to liase with state governments and the Union home ministry on use of the helicopters.

Requests for such helicopters have been made not only by the Andhra government but also other states and the CRPF. It is precisely because the need to deploy more Mi-17s is accepted by the defence establishment that the air force has asked for its helicopters on UN peace duties in Congo and Sudan to be sent back. There are currently 17 IAF helicopters on UN duties, among them eight gunships and nine Mi-17s.

State and central forces have also been using civilian Pawan Hans helicopters during the operations — as they did when the security forces marched into Lalgarh in June 2009. But Pawan Hans pilots have refused to fly over areas that are deemed dangerous. Therefore, there is greater pressure on the IAF to deploy more Mi-17s.

But the IAF has asked the state and central police to “sanitise” helipads in Naxalite-hit zones — meaning the security forces have been asked to ensure that the helipads are not within the range of small arms fire.

The helicopters are meant not only to carry troops but also to evacuate casualties. They were used, for example, to evacuate the dead and the injured in the Maoist attacks in Chhattisgarh’s Mukram and Narainpur in Bastar in April and last month.

PM visit off

A planned two-day visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Andhra from tomorrow has been deferred, apparently because of the perceived threat of revenge attacks after the killing of Maoist leader Azad.

The official reason given by the state government is that the trip has been put off because a Tirupati airport revamp Singh was to have flagged off — among his main programmes — is stuck in a land row.

But sources in chief minister Roasiah’s office said the visit was put off over security concerns related to the rebel threat. The state intelligence bureau has warned of such strikes.