Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Arunachal CM Dorjee Khandu killed in chopper crash

ITANAGAR: Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Dorji Khandu, who went missing on Saturday on a flight from Tawang, is dead along with four others after their helicopter crashed in bad weather in the mountains and their bodies and the wreckage were located today.

The five, including two pilots, who took off in a single-engined EuroCopter B8 of Pawan Hans, perished in the crash and the bodies and wreckage of the chopper were spotted in a place between Kyela and Lobothang in the mountainous region of the state this morning.

"The chief minister and four others are dead," Union Minister for Development of Northeastern Region B K Handique told a press conference here this evening.

The other occupants of the helicopter were pilots Capt J S Babbar, Capt T S Mamik, Khandu's security officer Yeshi Choddak and Yeshi Lhamu, sister of Tawant MLA Tsewang Dhondup.

This is the second death of a chief minister in two years after the death of Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy in a helicopter crash in the Nallamalla ranges in the state in September 2009.

There was also another crash involving a Pawan Hans helicopter a fortnight ago in Arunachal mountains in which 17 people were killed.

Twice chief minister of this north eastern state, 56-year-old Khandu, who belongs to Monpa tribe, leaves four wives, four sons and two daughters.

Khandu had worked in the military intelligence and participated in the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971. He had received a gold medal for meritorious service during the war.

Handique said operations for recovery of the bodies were on and would continue through the night and, if necessary, tomorrow morning.

Bodies will be picked up one after the other and transported. A decision will be taken whether to bring them to Tawang or to Itanagar, he said.

Handique had earlier in the day said a relative of 56-year-old Khandu, who has been chief minister twice, and a panchayat leader from his constituency identified his body.

The panchayat leader Thupten from Kyela village of Khandu's Mukto constituency, first informed an official Rinchin of his sighting the body which was passed on Tawang Deputy Commissioner Hamli Padu, who alerted the army base at Kyela, Handique reporters here.

Handique said a state mourning will be declared once the body of the chief minister is recovered.

Handique said the chief minister's body would lie in state in his home here for people to pay their last respects and full honours would be accorded to it.

To a question about a successor to Khandu, he said he would be named at an appropriate time.

Asked whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi would be making a visit here, he said they would get in touch with them once all formalities are finalised.

The minister said all the bodies were lying in a deep gorge in Kyela near Luguthang at an altitude of 4,500 metres about 6 hours by foot from Luguthang Gompa in Tawang district.

"The process may continue till morning and the bodies one by one will be flown from Luguthang in an IAF Chetak helicopter to Tawang from where it will be flown to Itanagar most likely tomorrow with the consent of family members in a big chopper," he said.

Earlier in the morning in Delhi, home minister P Chidambaram gave hints of bad tidings when he said information is "not encouraging and not good news". He spoke about helicopters locating the site of the crash and sighting of bodies.

Later in the evening, in his second update to the reporters he said, "From whatever I can piece together the information from the information given by the villagers and assuming it to be true, I am afraid the news is grim and sad."

Giving details, he said some villagers had reportedly reached the site of the crash of a helicopter and communicated to the control room in Itanagar that they had identified two bodies while three were charred beyond recognition.

"These are interrupted communications by villagers who have reached the site. But no official of the government, army or police has been able to reach there," he said.

"It may take several hours for any of these officials to reach the spot because it is about five kilometres from Kyela," Chidambaram said.

He said a Cheetah helicopter, which flew over the site, was also able to locate the debris of a crashed helicopter and some bodies lying there.

"We are trying to land another Cheetah from Lubuthang," the home minister said, adding a team of the government to reach the accident site which is about 5 kms from Kyela.

Handique said honouring the wishes of people, Khandu's body would be brought here and kept in his bungalow for the people to pay their last respects. 

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