Helicopter Sabotage Targets Indian Billionaire

By: Sam Dolnick, Associated Press Email
By: Sam Dolnick, Associated Press Email

NEW DELHI (AP) - Anil Ambani does not wait in traffic.

The billionaire industrialist often commutes by helicopter, soaring far above the traffic jams that clog his sprawling hometown of Mumbai.

But Ambani's high-flying life could have ended last week - a complaint filed with police said pebbles and gravel were found in the chopper's engine - debris that could have caused the craft to crash.

The case took a bizarre twist this week: the technician who discovered the suspected sabotage turned up dead. Bharat Borge's body was discovered on suburban Mumbai railway tracks after he was apparently hit by a train - a death police are calling suicide but
Borge's family believes was murder.

The intrigue is only the latest chapter in the Ambani saga, a multigenerational tale that began with an ambitious patriarch and includes warring brothers, Bollywood starlets, and egos that match their multibillion dollar fortunes.

The latest developments have gripped the country, with newspapers splashing the story across their front pages and TV news channels giving repeated updates.

Whoever placed the pebbles in the engine understood helicopters, senior pilot R.N. Joshi of Reliance Transport & Travels - one of Anil Ambani's companies - said in the police complaint. The chopper likely would have been able to take off, he said, but the debris would have entered the gear box and cut the power, bringing down the aircraft.

"Some persons, possible business rivals, were attempting to take away the life of Anil Ambani," said Joshi.

The alleged sabotage would not have been possible "without active involvement" of someone at the Mumbai company that maintained the Ambani helicopter, he said.

Mumbai's chief police investigator, Rakesh Maria, declined to comment on the investigation, saying only it was under way.

Ambani's father, Dhirubhai Ambani, was one of India's first great capitalists, a South Asian Horatio Alger hero who inspired generations of entrepreneurs. He launched the Reliance empire trading spices and textiles before going public in 1977 in one of India's first major public offerings. When he died 25 years later, the Reliance conglomerate was India's largest private sector company with interests in petrochemicals, plastics, oil refineries, and more.

His two sons, Anil and Mukesh Ambani, inherited the sprawling company - and quickly began feuding.

Their mother divided the conglomerate between them, with Mukesh, the older brother, inheriting petrochemical, oil, and refining interests and Anil receiving power generation, telecommunication and financial services.

The brothers have expanded their respective dominions, and remain locked in a rivalry that has them jockeying for position on Forbes' list of the world's richest people.

Mukesh Ambani, who is worth $19.5 billion, is at seventh place while Anil, worth $10.1 billion, is at 34th, according to Forbes.

Anil, who dated a string of Bollywood actresses before marrying one of them, was always the flashier of the brothers. Last year, he took his first steps into Hollywood when he teamed up with director Steven Spielberg to launch a production company.

Although the sibling competition has long been heated, no one has ever accused the brothers of contemplating fratricide. Mukesh Ambani's name has not been mentioned as a possible suspect in the helicopter sabotage.

Jayant Patil, the top security official in the state of Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai, told reporters Wednesday that there was no "corporate rivalry" behind the incident. He offered no evidence.

Bharat Borge, a senior Air Works technician, was preparing the helicopter for a flight to a Mumbai suburb April 23 when he noticed a problem with a cap in the gear box, according to Joshi's statement.

"When he opened the filler cap in order to refit correctly, he was shocked to notice that there were pebbles and gravel in the filler neck," Joshi said. "This mischief could not have been noticed in a routine check."

Five days later Borge was found dead with a handwritten note in his pocket addressed to police. The note said he was questioned by Reliance officials, "but I didn't tell them anything," according to published reports.

"One of them took my number and said they would talk to me again the next day. I got scared that I would be 'used,"' the note reportedly said.

Maria said authorities were working to determine whether the handwriting was Borge's.

Borge's family said they suspect foul play.

"He was in the army for 20 years and he was strong, he never got depressed," Sambhaji Botre, a cousin, told the Press Trust of India news agency. "We don't believe it is a suicide."


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