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In midst of polls, Air Force airlifted a village under Naxal fire

In midst of polls, Air Force airlifted a village under Naxal fire

Author: Manu Pubby
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: May 24, 2009
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/in-midst-of-polls-air-force-airlifted-a-vil/465002/

Introduction: As encounter raged on in Orissa, IAF rescued 240 villagers and an EC observer

This is a rescue story that went unnoticed in the deluge of election talk. Last month, an Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopter crew braved bullets and bad light to airlift a village in Orissa to safety after it came under Naxal attack.

The rescue mission, set to get into IAF's record books, was carried out on April 17 by a single Mi-17 helicopter that was slotted for election duty. The routine task of ferrying election officers and ballot boxes to remote areas turned into a rescue mission after the crew was requested to evacuate people from a besieged village where a small group of CRPF jawans was holding up against a Naxal attack.

In a number of sorties where the helicopter made several landings, more than 240 villagers and an Election Commission observer were airlifted to safety while the encounter on the ground raged on. The mission was undertaken by an IAF helicopter piloted by Wing Commander Amit Vyas and Flight Lieutenant Nikhil Mehrotra. "From whatever time that was available to us till last light that day, we managed to evacuate 120 villagers in some quick shuttles. And from the very first light next day, we evacuated the remaining 120 civilians to safety, including the Election Commission observer," recalls Wing Commander Vyas, an experienced helicopter pilot who has served on UN missions.

The helicopter, which was undertaking election-related work in Bihar, was diverted to Orissa's Malkangiri on the request of the state's Inspector General of Police, who got an SOS from Chitrakunda village that had been surrounded by Naxals.

What made the rescue tricky was the fact that it was late evening, making visibility poor. The constant firing also made each landing and takeoff very risky. To negate this, the helicopter spent minimum time on the ground and waited long enough for people to clamber on before taking off again.

"We took all precautions as per the guidelines and spent as little as 35 seconds each time we were on the ground," says Vyas. The IAF chopper also dropped over three tonnes of ration and supplies for the CRPF party that was fighting the Naxals.

While in this particular mission, the helicopter miraculously came out unscathed, previously there have been several incidents of IAF choppers coming under fire during election duties in Naxal-affected areas.

On April 16, a day before this rescue mission in Orissa, another IAF helicopter was hit by a bullet in the tail boom while it was taking off with a five-member Election Commission team and Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) from Maharashtra's Naxal-affected Gadchiroli district. Last November, the IAF for the first time lost an airman in the Naxal area after an Mi 8 helicopter was fired at by Maoist rebels in Chhattisgarh. The helicopter too was carrying out poll-related duties in the area.

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