IAF takes a big hit

IAF chopper involved in rescue operations crashes north of Gaurikund; eight bodies recovered but 20 feared dead; toll in Uttarakhand touches 830; inclement weather continues to play truant.

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There seems to be no end to the tragedy in Uttarakhand. An Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopter involved in rescue operations in the calamity-hit region crashed on Tuesday, killing eight people, including five crew members. The incident took place on a day when the official toll in Uttarakhand touched 830 and 120 more bodies were found in Kedarnath, the worst-hit area. 

There were 20 people on board the MI-17 V-5 helicopter, including nine National Disaster Response Force personnel and six Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force jawans. So far, eight bodies have been recovered, but it is feared that all 20 are dead. 

According to the IAF, the helicopter made a stop at Gauchar while returning from Kedarnath. It took off from Gauchar at 2.30pm, but went missing for three hours thereafter. Around 6pm, it was discovered that the helicopter had crashed north of Gaurikund. This is the second such incident in a week in Uttarakhand after a private helicopter carrying relief material in Rudraprayag crashed near Gaurikund on Sunday, leaving the pilot injured.

The IAF has ordered a court of inquiry into the crash, but maintained that rescue operations will remain unaffected. IAF chief NAK Browne assured flood survivors that the air force would rescue everyone stranded in Uttarakhand, but bad weather and poor visibility have led to frequent suspension of evacuation flights.

Many sorties had to be cancelled on Tuesday due to heavy rains and poor visibility. The meteorological department said it expects more rain in the next two days which would hamper rescue operations further.

The focus of the rescue operations will now be on Badrinath and Harsil, where 5,200 people are still stranded.

As many as 60 IAF helicopters and some privately owned ones are involved in rescue and relief work in Uttarakhand. The IAF started inducting MI-17 V-5 choppers only last year after 80 of them were ordered from Russia. The MI-17 V-5 is an upgraded version of the MI-17 and is equipped with state-of-the-art avionics, navigation systems, weather radar and advanced autopilot. It is also compatible with the latest night vision goggles.

Meanwhile, prime minister Manmohan Singh expressed shock at the loss of lives during the helicopter crash on Tuesday. “This accident during relief operations has come as a huge shock to me. My heart goes out to the families of those who have lost their lives. The nation mourns with me the loss of our heroes whose selfless work has saved thousands of lives,” Singh said. “Our forces are conducting a heroic task in rescue and relief work in Uttarakhand. Continuing their work would be the best homage to them.”

The Supreme Court has asked the government to step up rescue and relief operations in Uttarakhand. —With agency inputs

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