India’s campaign against the country’s Maoist insurgency suffered a major setback on Tuesday when rebel fighters ambushed a paramilitary unit on patrol in an isolated forest region, killing at least 73 officers.
The authorities described a carefully executed surprise attack in which the Maoists opened fire as the patrol entered an area seeded with booby-trap bombs. When officers fell to the ground to take cover from gunfire, they detonated the explosives.
“I am deeply shocked at the loss of lives,” said Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, according to the news agency Press Trust of India. He said the Maoist attack showed the “brutality and the savagery they are capable of.”
The attack comes as the government is mobilizing security forces against the Maoists in a multistate campaign known as Operation Green Hunt. The Maoists, also known as Naxalites, have existed in India for four decades and claim to represent the interests of the rural dispossessed who have not shared in India’s economic progress. Once lightly regarded by the government, the Maoists have expanded across a large rural corridor and now exercise outright control over some isolated, mountain regions. Maoist propaganda calls for overthrowing the Indian state.
The goal of the government operation is to push the Maoists out of more populated rural areas and isolate them in certain remote mountain regions. Maoist sympathizers have accused the government of brutalizing and killing innocent villagers as security forces sweep through rural areas to root out rebel fighters.
Officials say the Maoists are the brutalizers, having disrupted schools and hospitals and destroyed roads in many areas; the security campaign calls for clearing areas of rebels so that government services can be restored.
By some unofficial estimates, roughly 200 security officers have been killed by Maoists during the past 12 months. The operation involves multiple federal and state security agencies, and some analysts have questioned whether poor coordination and training is exposing officers to danger. On Sunday, Maoists detonated a land mine in the state of Orissa, killing 10 officers and injuring 16 others. Last month, the Maoists blew up a railroad track, forcing the minor derailment of a passenger train. And in February, about 100 Maoists on motorcycles stormed a police outpost in the state of West Bengal, killing 24 security officers.
The attack on Tuesday occurred in the Dantewada region in the state of Chhattisgarh, in an area known as Chintalnar, considered a major Maoist stronghold. The officers were members of the Central Reserve Police Force, a paramilitary unit, who entered the forest on Sunday night for a two-day mission related to the government operation.
T. J. Longkumar, the Chhattisgarh police inspector general for the larger region, said the officers were returning to camp after an early morning patrol when the Maoists struck around 6:30 a.m. Officer Longkumar said he did not know how many fighters had attacked, but Indian news outlets reported that as many as 1,000 Maoists were involved.
“They were blasted,” Officer Longkumar said. “Most of the casualties were from the explosives.”
He said the attack was likely a response to the fact that security forces have been pressing deeper into isolated areas once completely controlled by the Maoists. “They have regrouped,” he said. “They feel we are entering their core area.” NYT