KUCHING: The Sarawak elections went from seeking votes to desperately searching for a helicopter which went missing with several VIPs aboard.
The Eurocopter AS 350 carrying five passengers, including Plantation Industries and Commodities Deputy Minister Datuk Noriah Kasnon, her husband and four others, had left Betong at 4.12pm and was headed to Kuching.
As at 11.30pm, the fate of all the passengers and pilot Capt Rudolf Rex Ragas was still unknown.
Contact was lost with the helicopter 20 minutes after it left Betong, said Sarawak Police Commissioner Datuk Seri Muhammad Sabtu Osman.
“It takes between 35 and 40 minutes to travel from Betong to Kuching. The helicopter left at 4.12pm and radar contact was lost at 4.32pm,” said Muhammad Sabtu at a press conference late last night.
He said no distress call was received as at press time.
He added the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) had confirmed there was no proof that the helicopter had landed anywhere in Sarawak.
He said the police marine team and helicopters would be mobilised at 6am today to assist in the search for the missing helicopter.
Earlier, DCA director-general Datuk Seri Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said a search and rescue (SAR) operation had been launched, while Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein had ordered the air force and army to join the operation.
Sarawak Fire and Rescue Department director Nor Hisham Mohammad said the helicopter remained classified as “untraceable”.
He said the last contact from the helicopter was near Spaoh.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak expressed his deep concern over the missing helicopter.
“Search and rescue activated. Let us pray for their safety,” Najib said in a Facebook posting.
The others reported to be in the helicopter with Noriah, who is also Barisan Nasional’s Sungai Besar MP, were her husband Asmuni Abdullah; ministry secretary-general Datuk Dr Sundaran Annamalai; Kuala Kangsar MP and Malaysian Palm Oil Board chairman Datuk Wan Mohammad Khair-il Anuar Wan Ahmad; and Noriah’s bodyguard Ahmad Sobri.
Minister Datuk Seri Douglas Uggah Embas said he last saw Noriah at 12.30pm at his constituency of Bukit Saban, where he is contesting in the state election.
It is understood that the helicopter has a fuel endurance of 92 minutes.
Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said the Fire and Rescue Department, Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and National Disaster Management Agency had also been roped in for the SAR operation.
He said the helicopter was rented by Hornbill Skyways from an aviation firm in the Philippines.