Maoist rebels ambush soldiers in Indian forests killing 76 in the deadliest attack in 43 years

By Indrajit Singh, AP
Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Maoist rebels kill 76 soldiers in eastern India

PATNA, India — Indian forces scoured the dense eastern forests Wednesday in a hunt for Maoist rebels who killed at least 76 troops in the deadliest attack on government fighters in their 43-year insurgency.

The carefully planned ambush on a paramilitary foot patrol Monday stunned the nation and showed that the rebels appeared uncowed by a new government offensive aimed at crushing them.

Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, the nation’s top law enforcement official, flew to the area to discuss the offensive, known as Operation Green Hunt, with local officials, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

“The search operation is continuing,” said Ranbit Singh Thakur, a local police officer.

More than 500 Maoists launched the attack early Tuesday morning against a group of soldiers returning to base from a two-day patrol in Chhattisgarh states’s Dantewada forests, said G.K. Pillai, the federal home secretary. More soldiers were killed when they stepped on land mines the Maoists planted throughout the ambush zone, he said.

Officials said every soldier on patrol was either killed or wounded.

The attack killed 76 troops and wounded seven others, three critically, said R.K. Vij, an inspector general of the Chhattisgarh police. The government found no rebel bodies.

Chidambaram said the soldiers were part of a joint operation involving state forces and paramilitary fighters.

“But something has gone very wrong. They seemed to have walked into a trap set by the Naxalites. Casualties are quite high and I am deeply shocked,” he said.

Few other details were available from the isolated, thickly forested area. The rebels rarely speak to the press.

Inspired by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, the rebels have tapped into the rural poor’s growing anger at being left out of the country’s economic gains and are now present in 20 of the country’s 28 states.

Named after Naxalbari, the village in West Bengal state where their movement was born in 1967, they have an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 fighters.

While many are poorly armed — often going into battle with handmade weapons forged from plumbing pipes — they regularly launch bloody attacks on government forces. In February, they killed at least 24 police officers in West Bengal state in an attack on their camp.

The government dismisses Naxalite claims to speak for the country’s poor, arguing they do little but wreak havoc in some of India’s most impoverished regions.

The soldiers attacked Tuesday were part of the government’s “Operation Green Hunt” offensive, which is aimed at flushing the militants out of their forest hide-outs.

In the past few months that the Indian government has cracked down on the rebels it has also said it was ready to discuss all their demands, but only if they gave up violence. About 2,000 people — including police, militants and civilians — have been killed over the past few years.

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