IAF copter fired at as landing point was not sanitised; chopper and injured wireless operator abandoned

There has hardly been a faux pas in anti-Naxal operations in recent months as discomfiting to the forces as Friday night’s tactless act in the Chintagufa area in south Chhattisgarh. Security officials unanimously agreed that there was a ‘serious lack of coordination’ among police, paramilitary and Indian Air Force personnel.

On Friday afternoon, during a road opening exercise, the Nine Battalion of the Chhattisgarh Armed Forces (CAF) came under heavy firing from suspected Maoists in the Chintagufa area, resulting in the death of head constable Besuram Mandawi. To evacuate the injured including Platoon commander Nandkishore Bhadoriya and lift Mandawi’s body, an IAF chopper, M1 17, was called from the Jagdalpore airbase by the State police. As it was about to land on the Temelwara helipad, the chopper was fired at from all sides by members of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army.

Inordinately close

The close range of the attack has surprised senior security officers. “The proximity of the gunmen was 250-300 metres from the sanitised zone, and was an inordinately close range,” said a senior IAF official involved with the mission. In any conflict area, the security forces are supposed to undergo a ‘sanitisation exercise’ (securing the copter’s landing site by area domination) and the standard practice is to ‘sanitise’ a 3-5 km radius. While it may not be possible to secure a 3-km radius in a forest, an area of 1.5-2 km is normally cleared. “But it is evident that the copter was shot from a distance of 250 metres,” said the official.

However, Chhattisgarh police chief Ram Niwas refused to accept that sanitisation, a responsibility of his force, was inadequate. “If there was no sanitisation, how did the entire crew survive? Given that it is a hostile area, the best possible sanitisation was done, and hence velocity [of bullet] was reduced.”

A police release said wireless operator of the district police M. Sahu, who was inside the chopper, got shot and the pilot had to make an emergency landing. All six IAF members including two of the Special Forces unit, Garud Commando Force, ‘walked to the local police station [Chintagufa] only at night and informed the police of the incident,’ the release said. The injured Sahu was left alone in the chopper for five hours, approximately between 5 and 10 p.m. until a joint force of the CRPF (150 Battalion) and Cobra (201 Battalion) rescued him. The officers and personnel of the Chhattisgarh police were left bewildered. “How can one leave an injured comrade in enemy controlled areas and slip into a safer zone? Even Maoists don’t do that,” said a senior police officer. The IAF official, however, said the allegation was a ‘perception’. “The captain of the copter did what he thought was right at that point of time. Moreover, these are highly trained manpower and high value helicopters. We can not waste those. So we feel the gentleman did the right thing by coming out and informing the security personnel,” he told The Hindu on phone on condition of anonymity. The question is why the IAF personnel left behind the ‘high value helicopter’ in the middle of the forest. “As part of the IAF’s standard operating procedure an investigation into the incident has been initiated,” said the official.

Mr. Niwas said he did not want to involve in a ‘blame game in a warlike situation.’ That the Maoists had not taken the injured radio operator hostage also surprised the security officials. Questions have been raised about the role of the State police as well. “It is strange that the police did not go out of the Temelwara camp to rescue Mr. Sahu, a member of their force, while being close to the spot where the copter landed,” said a senior CRPF official.