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‘Secret’ rescue mission for missing Israeli raises eyebrows
Kuldeep Chauhan
Tribune News Service

Missing Israeli Amichai Shtainmetz
Missing Israeli Amichai Shtainmetz

Kasol (Kullu), August 11
A group of 10 Israelis, accompanied by an equal number of local guides, today set out from Kheerganga, 26 km from Kullu, to search for the missing 24-year-old Israeli backpacker, Amichai Shtainmetz, who disappeared from a guesthouse in the area last month.

According to a spokesperson of the Israeli embassy in New Delhi, the members of the team were all volunteers and not from the Israeli army as believed by the Himachal police.

The rescue effort, however, has stirred a hornet’s nest after the Himachal Pradesh government said it had no information of any helicopter being used in the Parbati valley in an earlier rescue mission. Authorities at Kullu’s Bhuntar airport have also denied any knowledge about the chopper.

The ‘secret helicopter recce’ to search for Amichai, reportedly involving a Delhi-based private company and an Israeli insurance firm, raised serious security concerns in view of the terror threat as well as drug smuggling in the sensitive Parbati valley, where Asia’s biggest hydroelectric dam, the 2,051 MW Parbati project - is under construction.

Experts have warned the search mission in the Kheerganga-Mantalai-Pin Parbati pass, which overlooks the strategically sensitive region of Spiti-Kinnaur bordering Tibet on the Sino-Indian border, could pose grave security risks.

The Israeli embassy spokesperson said according to their information no permission was required from the Indian government to search the area from a helicopter and to dispatch a rescue team to the glaciers.

Kullu SP KK Indoria confirmed a privately owned helicopter landed at Bhuntar airport and flew over the Parbati valley for four or five days. However, he said he was not aware whether any permission for the operation had been sought from the civil aviation or home ministries. “They (the Israelis) had met me and I assumed they must have obtained permission for their search mission”, he added.

Principal home secretary Subhash Negi and GAD secretary Ajay Bhandari told The Tribune neither the Israeli embassy nor the Indian government sought the state government’s cooperation in the search for the missing Israeli. “We don’t know whether any helicopter is being used in the rescue mission in the Parbati valley”, they asserted.

Airport Authority of India’s Kullu chief KM Nehra said though the Israelis had not stated their helicopter flight plan to Bhuntar airport they must have conveyed it to the Delhi-based Flight Plan Aviation Centre.

When contacted, counsellor at the Israeli embassy Irit said: “The insurance firm hired the private helicopter from a Delhi company and conducted the search operation over the Kheerganag-Bhunbuni pass for four or five days till yesterday. However, there has been no trace of Amochai. The rescue team consists of 8 Israeli volunteers, who are not army personnel as thought by some, and the operation was funded by a privately-owned Israeli firm.”

However, Irit refused to name the company. “We were told by both the Indian external affairs and civil aviation ministries there was no need to obtain prior permission for the search operation in Kullu”, she claimed.

Local residents said “nobody knows who flew the helicopter here for five days and what they took out.” The area has rich reserves of precious stones and hashish is readily available in the lower Parbati valley.

Amichai’s father, Jacob Shtainmetz, a lawyer in Jerusalem, insists his son is alive and was stranded in the mountains around the Kheerganga-Bhunbuni glacier as his friends told him. Both Jacob and Irit ruled out any foul play in his disappearance.

“We’re religious people and have nothing to do with the contraband narcotics trade in the valley”, said Jacob. He added his son served in the Israeli army for three years and was in India for the past six months. He had enrolled in an archaeology course at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, he adds.

Gudu, in charge of the Kheerganga ‘ashram’, said Amichai and his friend David stayed at the ‘ashram’ for two days before he was reported missing on July 21. “We don’t know whether he left for Bhunbhuni pass”, he added.



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