Incessant rains, and not Maoists, is the major hurdle facing the security forces who have launched a massive search operation in the Nallamalla forests in Andhra Pradesh, where Chief Minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy's helicopter went missing this morning, Andhra Pradesh police sources involved in the search operations have said.
Andhra Pradesh's anti-Naxal forces, known to be the best in the country, are also part of the search operations. They are very familiar with the terrain and have detailed knowledge of the area.
"It has been two and a half years since the Maoist threat has been neutralized in this region. There is no Maoist threat here. The only hurdle facing us now is the incessant rains," a senior officer who did not wish to be named told rediff.com.
The officer added that it will be dawn before they get a clear picture. "If the rains hold up, it would slow down the search parties. It will be morning by the time we have a clear picture," the officer said.
Nallamalla was recently in the news when a top Maoist leader surrendered there. Sambasivudu, widely understood to be the Maoist leader who had engineered a vicious attack on the then chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu in Tirupati in 2003, surrendered to the police. While it was said Sambasivudu's deteriorating health forced him to surrender, there were also reports that some local leaders in Rayalaseema (the larger region in which the forests fall) brokered his surrender.
Thus, Maoist presence in the region cannot be totally ruled out, some experts feel.
But the police dismissed fears that either Maoists or landmines planted by them in the area will be a problem. Asked if there are fears that Maoists might attack search parties, the officer said, "There is absolutely no chance or fear of an attack. Nor is there a fear of landmines. As I said, only the weather, and the forest terrain, are our enemies," he said.
Other sources also agreed that the Maoists are not a threat in the jungles. A Chhattisgarh intelligence officer who has worked in tandem with the Andhra Pradesh police against Maoists said that the rebels are not a force in the forests of Nallamalla.
"Maoists are active in only about two northern districts and on the borders of Orissa and Chhattisgarh. The Nallamalla forests are more towards the borders of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in the south. "Udhar toh AP police unko poora ka poora khatam hi kar diya (The AP police have annihilated the Maoists in the region)," he said.
Another purported worry for the rescue and search party was the alleged ability and designs of the Maoists to bring down choppers. But sources rule out that angle too.
"They have been trying to hit a chopper for a while now. The closest they have come till now was when they targeted a helicopter after polling in Bastar in November. But that was when it was taking off. We do not believe that they have the capability to hit a chopper in mid-air," an officer in the Bastar region, where the Maoists hit the chopper during the November assembly elections, said.
Meanwhile, National Security Advisor M K Narayanan on Wednesday appeared to completely rule out the possibility of Naxals bringing down the helicopter of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y S R Reddy, saying the ultras did not have such a capability. He said it was quite possible that a technical snag or a pilot error could have led to the chopper going missing. "Naxal strike seems extremely improbable. I would almost entirely rule it out. I do not think the Naxalites have the capability to bring down the helicopter," Narayanan said.
Text: Krishnakumar P Additional reportage by PTI
Image: KBK graphic