NEW DELHI // At least 75 Indian paramilitary soldiers were killed when their convoy drove into a Maoist ambush yesterday in the worst massacre of security forces by the guerrillas. The troops, part of a government operation to stamp out the increasingly bloody insurgency, were attacked with a string of blasts from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and gunfire when their vehicles were surrounded by hundreds of Maoists in dense forest in the state of Chhattisgarh.
The convoy, carrying about 120 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, was on its way to recover the bodies of three of their colleagues killed the day before when the armoured lead vehicle hit a landmine. Police said the convoy was encircled by more than 1,000 heavily armed guerrillas who triggered the explosions and opened fire from makeshift bunkers dug into surrounding hilltops especially for the ambush.
At least 75 were killed in what is believed to be the highest number wiped out in a single attack by the left-wing extremists, known as Naxalites, after the village of Naxal where the uprising bega. The ambush in the Maoist-infested Mukrana forest in Dantewada district has called into question the tactics and training of the government forces tackling the insurgency that killed more than 700 last year.
India's home minister, Palaliappan Chidambaram, who was visibly upset, expressed shock at the massacre of the soldiers and said the troops had "walked into a trap" laid by the Maoists. "The casualty [rate] is very high and I am deeply shocked at the loss of lives. "This shows the savage nature of CPI [Maoist] and their brutality and the savagery they are capable of," he said. Blaming "intelligence failure" as the key reason behind the Maoist attack, Raman Singh, the chief minister of Chhattisgarh, vowed that the anti-Maoist operation will continue in his state with support from New Delhi.
In the hours following the attack, two CRPF rescue missions were ambushed by the Maoists in a similar style, with IEDs and gun attacks. Along with the heavy casualties inflicted, the Maoists also looted weapons from the dead soldiers. By sunset, 75 bodies had been recovered and nine injured soldiers had been airlifted to hospitals, R K Vij, an inspector general of Chhatisgarh Police said. "The CRPF party was out for last three days. We were attacked at at least six points by more than 1,000 Maoists," said Mr Vij. He added that additional reinforcements were on their way from neighbouring states.
S R P Kalluri, the inspector general of Anti-Naxal Operations in Dantewada district told the local media that following three days of extensive forest patrol the soldiers were exhausted when they were trapped in the attack. The government launched Operation Green Hunt late last year in the forests of the so-called "Red Corridor" that stretches across north and eastern India. Yesterday's attack follows another in neighbouring Orissa two days ago in which 11 security personnel were killed in a landmine explosion.
For some observers the attacks highlight a lack of training and equipment to tackle the Maoists. Ajay Sahni, the executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, warned in February that India's security forces lacked strength in "numbers, training, transportation and arms" to defeat the Maoists. "It will just be a nibbling away at the peripheries, and a lot of security forces will be killed," he said.
Yesterday's attack could lead to a change of tactics, with the home minister, Mr Chidambaram, hinting that he was thinking of using the army. But Gen Shankar Roychowdhury, the former army chief of India, said the troops should not be used as the Maoists are not separatists like insurgents in north-east India or Kashmir. Gen Roychowdhury, also said he was "utterly surprised" at the death of 75 elite counterinsurgency counter insurgency soldiers being killed in a single ambush. "It's unbelievable. The Maoists must have a military genius among them. They must have planned this attack for one or two days, built bunkers on the hilltop before executing this attack with military precision You cannot fight the Maoist problem militarily. Dialogue is the only way to solve this problem," he said.
The opposition BJP described the Chhattisgarh massacre as a "war against India" and backed the UPA-led government's campaign against the Maoists. It said it would support all measures to finish them off. "The government must launch an all-out offensive to finish off the Maoists. This should be a fight to the finish and we the BJP stand by the government on this fight. The nation comes first - this is not a political issue any more," said the BJP spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy.
According to a home ministry report released last year, about 22,000 Maoist rebels are active in 20 of India's 29 states, and along with the party's political wing effectively control about a third of the country's territory. In many areas, the report said, they even run their own governments parallel to the state, and they are now spreading beyond rural areas into the cities. The Maoists originally took up arms in 1967 to protest the government's marginalisation of the rural poor, but over the past few years the insurgency has grown increasingly bloody. At least 735 people, including civilians and security personnel, were killed in Maoist violence in India last year, up from a total of 640 in 2008.