KOLKATA // At least 80 people were killed and 200 injured when a passenger train was derailed in eastern India, triggering a crash with a goods train in what authorities said was an attack by Maoist guerrillas. The Maharashtra-bound Gyaneshwari Super Deluxe Express came off the track in West Bengal, 135km west of Kolkata, around 1.30am Indian time yesterday while most passengers were sleeping.
Thirteen of its carriages fell on to the adjacent track where minutes later they were hit by the goods train. Nearly all the deaths and injuries occurred when the derailed compartments were struck. Police warned the death toll could rise with more bodies feared trapped in the mangled wreckage. Although it is not yet clear how the derailment happened, railway and local state security officials blamed the Maoists, saying crucial pieces of the track, known as fish plates, had been unfastened, and posters issued by the People's Committee Against Police Atrocities, a Maoist frontal organisation, had been found nearby.
Asit Mahato, a PCAPA chief, denied that any of their members were involved. "This is not our act," he told the Press Trust of India. If responsible, it would be the rebels' first significant attack on a civilian target and a change in their strategy of targeting just security forces. Zulfiquar Hassan, an inspector general of police in charge of the region, said intelligence officers had proof the Maoists were to blame.
"We have recovered [Maoist] posters calling for a halt on ongoing security operations against the Maoists. We are dead sure that it's a Maoist attack We have almost identified a small group of Maoists who engineered this attack on the train," said Mr Hassan. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, chief minister of West Bengal state, said the attack revealed how the Maoists have begun targeting civilians "in a desperate strategy".
"They have committed a dastardly crime against innocent people. We will confront them," said Mr Bhattacharya. "We cannot halt our operations against the Maoists. In fact our operation will be intensified and we are resolved to uproot this menace from our state." Mamata Banerjee, the railway minister, said: "Maoists caused the derailment in a sabotage and then the derailed compartments were crushed by the goods train. It's an attack on the train which has been found as a soft target by them [the Maoists] It's not an accident."
Although Ms Banerjee and her officers maintained that a blast preceded the derailment, West Bengal's chief secretary Ardhendu Sen said last night that police had not found any signs of an explosion usually carried out with landmines or improvised explosive devices. "We have not got evidence of any blast, but we have found proof that the fish plates had gone missing," said Mr Sen, adding that they had been removed possibly by the Maoists in a plan to derail the train.
Four of the carriages that were slammed by the oncoming goods train were badly crushed and flipped on their sides, leaving body parts visible amid the twisted metal. Rescue workers with bolt cutters struggled to free anyone still alive inside. One survivor, Vinayak Sadna, said he had been sleeping when his carriage lurched violently to one side and then flipped over, flinging passengers around the compartment.
"I ended up stuck between two seats with an iron bar crushing my hand," Mr Sadna said. "I was trapped for three hours before I was pulled out. My wife is still missing." Relatives last night revealed their anger at the Maoists. Golam Mustafa, a 55-year-old tailor who lost his son-in-law in the disaster said he does not believe that Maoists were "friends of the poor" any more. "The Maoists always say they fight for the right of the poor and in their armed struggle they never attack innocent people. But this attack on the train shows that they are deviating from their ideology," said Mr Mustafa.
The Maoist rebellion, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has labelled the biggest threat to the country's internal security, began in West Bengal in 1967. The latest attack brings into question the government's strategy for tackling the rebels, known as Naxalites, who are estimated to control a third of India's land mass with rebels active in 22 of 28 states. Mr Bhattacharya said the attack warranted a review of the government's counterinsurgency strategy. "We have to find ways to counter the Maoist menace. Innocent people are being killed."
The government launched a co-ordinated offensive, dubbed Operation Greenhunt, against the rebels in November 2009 with more than 60,000 paramilitary and state police. The operation has produced few tangible results and the Maoist attacks have continued unabated, triggering growing calls for the army to be brought in. firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse