Debate rages on pilot’s decision to lift off chopper, on evacuation mission, prematurely when it came under fire, leaving five commandos in the red zone

The capture and killing of Vara Prasad, a Greyhounds commando, in the hands of Maoists in Bastar last week, forced the security experts to debate whether the helicopter pilot on an evacuation mission, had lifted off prematurely when his chopper came under fire, leaving five commandoes in the red zone.

While four of them fought their way through a Maoist ambush, the fifth one, Vara Prasad, was caught and killed by the Maoists. Vara Prasad’s was the single casualty suffered by the Grey Hounds, which carried out one of the most successful military assaults against the Maoists in Bastar forests on April 16 in which ten Maoists were killed.

“If only the chopper waited for twenty seconds more the five commandoes would have boarded it. The pilot decided to lift off as the MI-17 came under fire from Maoist rebels. It was only a matter of seconds, but the pilot ignored the requests of other commandoes to wait and allow the five to board. If only the pilot waited for sometime, we could have saved the life of a commando”, is the refrain of several officers, who monitored the ‘Operation Sukma’.

Information gathered from different officials, who are not authorised to speak officially, indicates that Grey Hounds launched the deadly assault on Tuesday morning and killed 10 Maoists. (Interestingly, the CRPF and Chhattisgarh police were not involved in the operation, though they were informed of the operation.) Choppers from IAF and BSF were requisitioned to airlift the slain naxals bodies to Bhadrachalam on the same day.

The Grey Hounds units were ordered to stay put in the jungles as trekking back to safe areas was too dangerous in the night. Authorities had planned to send helicopters to evacuate them, as the commandoes who trekked for over 35 km before the ‘Operation Sukma’ were exhausted physically. The teams moved from the ambush site and walked for over seven kilometres to camp near Bhattigudem, a rendezvous for evacuation on Wednesday.

“In retrospect, we feel that was the most unfortunate decision. We never anticipated that the pilot would leave the commandoes and lift off just because one bullet hit the chopper,” rued an officer who was in radio-contact with the commando units. The chopper, an MI-17, had protective gear for its fuselage. “Our commandoes pleaded with the pilot to wait to allow their five colleagues to board. They had even promised to provide cover fire to hold the advancing Maoist teams. But the pilot just took off”.

The five-member team left behind fought their way through the Maoist ambush. Officers believe that the rebels who fled on Tuesday regrouped and joined by PLGA guerrillas from nearby areas lay in ambush at the makeshift helipad near Bhattigudem. The next day, the MI-17 made five sorties and evacuated the commandoes. The Maoist rebels, who must have been watching the helicopter flying in and out, moved in when it landed for the sixth time. The last batch to be evacuated consisted of 19 commandoes and 14 had managed to board, while five were on ground when the chopper took off.

The five-man team fought their way through. “As nearly 50 armed rebels pursued them, they sprinted for over three kilometres while using the technique of controlled fire. They took rest for sometime and ran for another three kilometres. Maoists continued to chase them and when they stopped for the third time to catch their breath, Vara Prasad strayed away. The four members who had GPS equipment retraced their route and trekked nearly 45 kilometres to surface at Taliperu near Cherla on AP border.”

Officers who planned several counter insurgency operations could not hide their dismay over the decision of the helicoper pilot to lift off in the event of fire. The chopper had a bullet hit, but that was not so dangerous, they aver. Officials recalled instances in which the pilots insisted on strict adherence to SOPs on helipad sanitisation. “This was a combat flying mission, not a commercial mission. How can they get rattled by a couple of bullets being fired at them?” asked another.

The story has been corrected for a factual error.