RAIPUR: Maoist rebels killed at least 16 people in a massive attack on security forces in central India Tuesday.
Security officials and police sources said the victims were all killed when up to 200 rebels ambushed a patrol in forests in Chhattisgarh state, sparking a major gun battle that lasted for three hours.
Twelve members of the national paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were killed along with four members of the state police force, said Mukesh Gupta, one of Chhattisgarh’s most senior police officers.
Rajinder Kumar Vij, the head of anti-Maoist operations in Chhattisgarh, put the number of CRPF personnel dead at 15 and said that five state policemen had also been killed.
There were no figures on the number of Maoist casualties.
The forces were involved in an operation to clear and open a road in Sukma district when the rebels detonated a land mine and started firing indiscriminately, Vij told AFP.
“The attack sparked a gun battle that lasted about three hours.”
Several people were injured in the attack and were airlifted to Ramkrishna Care Hospital in the state capital Raipur for treatment.
Security reinforcements were rushed to the area, along with top state government officials.
Gupta said the attack took place in a heavily-forested area during the operation to clear the road some 400 kilometers south of Raipur.
“The attack was on one of our police parties as the Naxalites (Maoists) have been frustrated at our increased presence in the area,” he said.
“We don’t yet know the casualties on the attackers side… It is difficult for us because of the topography of the area.”
One of the top officers in the CRPF said that paramilitaries who had been deployed to the region in the attack’s aftermath were wary of themselves becoming victims.
“The area is heavily mined and hence reinforcements are treading cautiously,” Inspector General Zulfiquar Hasan told the Press Trust of India news agency.
The latest deaths will heighten fears of unrest in the Maoists’ stronghold in the build-up to the nationwide elections which begin in early April.
Voting will take place in Chhattisgarh in three phases, on April 10, 17 and 24.
Ravi Shankar Prasad, a senior member of India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said authorities should not allow the attack to disrupt election preparations.
“They attack us to demoralize us, they attack us to loot our weapons,” said an official, who asked not to be named. The attacks seek to disrupt the electoral process, the official said.