Hyderabad, Sep 2 IANS): Hopes for the safety of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy were fading along with daylight Wednesday evening, eight hours after his helicopter went missing amid bad weather in a densely forested Maoist stronghold, triggering a desperate search by the military and police.
There were fears that the falling darkness would impede rescue operations by the five Indian Air Force and one private helicopter that had joined the hunt for the missing chopper. It was carrying YSR, as the 60-year-old chief minister is known, and his special secretary, his security officer besides two pilots from Hyderabad to Chittoor, 588 km away and closer to Tamil Nadu.
Flanked by Finance Minister K. Rosiah, Chief Secretary Ramakanth Reddy urged people in the Nallamalla forest area that covers Kurnool and adjoining districts to alert the police if they learnt anything about the helicopter.
YSR's fate caused tremors in New Delhi, where the office of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi were in touch with the state government, Reddy told reporters here.
The state government had also alerted both the home and defence ministries in New Delhi.
The chief secretary said two air force helicopters from Secunderabad and three from Bangalore were looking for the chief minister's helicopter along with a private chopper from Andhra Pradesh.
Andhra Pradesh also urged New Delhi to send an unmanned aircraft to the area.
The state government had lost touch with the chief minister at around 9.35 a.m.
"So far we have not been able to get any confirmation (about the chief minister). It is possible that because of the strong winds and heavy rains, it may have landed in some unfamiliar area," Reddy said. "If you land in an unfamiliar forested area, getting out will be very difficult."
He urged people living in the forested region to "kindly help us. If you get any signal, any reliable information, contact the nearest police station".
YSR had taken off from Hyderabad to attend a function in Chittoor Wednesday morning. The helicopter went off the radar amid inclement weather, causing panic in Hyderabad.
Shortly before before the finance minister and chief secretary spoke, there were conflicting versions about YSR's fate.
Social Welfare Minister P. Subhash Chandra Bose said the chief minister was safe after the helicopter landed in Kurnool district, but police both in Hyderabad and Kurnool declined to back the minister's claim.
"We have information that the chief minister is safe," said Chandra Bose. He did reveal any details.
Congress MP from Nandyal S.P.Y. Reddy, however, told a television channel that he was yet to receive any information about YSR's whereabouts from the police.
A high-level meeting was held at the state secretariat here after the helicopter went missing.
It was attended by Home Minister P. Sabita Indra Reddy, Chief Secretary Ramakant Reddy, Director General of Police S.S.P. Yadav, the chief minister's close aide and Rajya Sabha MP K.V.P. Ramchandra Rao and senior state ministers.
A doctor by training, YSR is presently one of the most influential leaders in the Congress after leading the party again to a spectacular win in the Lok Sabha and assembly elections in April-May this year.
Elected to the state assembly for the fifth time, YSR is also a four-time Lok Sabha member and holds the record of never losing an election.
Helicopter search for YSR called off: Chidambaram Text
Police and paramilitary forces are moving towards a forested area where Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy's missing helicopter was last spotted but the helicopter search has been called off, Home Minister P. Chidambaram said Wednesday.
A sombre Chidambaram said that forest and revenue department officials were searching the area in and around Kurnool district "where we think the helicopter was last seen. We are keeping our fingers crossed".
"The police and paramilitary forces are moving towards that point... Perhaps they would be able to do a search for a couple of hours at least, then we will have to wait first light tomorrow.
"Let us hope for the best. *Let us pray for the best," said the minister, who is supervising the search operation for the Andhra Pradesh helicopter that went missing with YSR on board while flying from Hyderabad to Chittoor Wednesday morning.
Manmohan, Sonia concerned over YSR's safety
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi Wednesday expressed serious concern over the reported disappearance of a helicopter carrying Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy after it encountered inclement weather in the interior areas of the state.
"Sonia Gandhi and her office are continuously monitoring the situation," Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari told reporters here, and added: "We pray to God for his safety and hope that he returns to work soon."
Both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Gandhi were in close touch with the Andhra chief minister's office and promised all help from the centre. The Congress party was also in constant contact with the state government and the state unit of the party, he said.
Four Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopters were despatched in the search mission.
Tewari refused to field further questions, stating there is a "crisis situation in Andhra Pradesh".
"It is an evolving situation; in view of the sensitivity of the matter, I will not say anything more," he said.