Suspected Maoist militants killed 25 paramilitary personnel and injured six in Chhattisgarh’s south Sukma region on Monday, police said, in an ambush possibly to thwart a crucial road link the government believes would break the back of the insurgent group.
The midday attack, which occurred between the Burkapal-Chintagufa area in the Maoist hotbed of Bastar, is the worst in seven years. In 2010, rebels killed 75 CRPF troopers in the same region.
Monday’s victims were part of a 99-strong team providing security to workers building the road.
“Security forces will move with ease in the area after this road is built and this is troubling the Maoists. We are entering their core through this road,” said DM Awasthi, special director general of police (anti-Maoist operations).
Survivors of the attack said about 300 militants waylaid them, firing with rifles from hilltops. Senior police officers said the security party was having lunch when they were attacked.
“First Naxals sent villagers to trace our location, then almost 300 Naxals attacked us. We also fired and killed many,” news agency ANI quoted CRPF constable Sher Mohammed as saying.
The security personnel were evacuated by air force choppers and a rescue team. The deceased were from the 74th battalion of the CRPF and included an inspector-rank officer.
Fatal attacks by Maoists on security forces were once frequent, and the government says the success of recent security operations against them have frustrated the rebels. Still, Monday’s attack demonstrated the vulnerability of the government forces in an insurgency that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once called India’s biggest internal security challenge.
The rebels say they are fighting for the rights of tribal people and landless farmers, and want to overthrow the government to establish a more egalitarian society.
Sources in the Indian Air Force said they received a request to airlift victims at around 3pm, and dispatched two Mi-17 helicopters. “Immediately casualties were air-lifted to Raipur and shifted to hospital. One of the casualty succumbed to injuries in flight on the way,” a spokesperson said, adding that several choppers were subsequently sent for the evacuations.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the attack in posts on his Twitter profile.
Attack on @crpfindia personnel in Chhattisgarh is cowardly & deplorable. We are monitoring the situation closely.— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) April 24, 2017
“We are proud of the valour of our @crpfindia personnel. The sacrifice of the martyrs will not go in vain. Condolences to their families”, he said.
Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh cut short a visit to Delhi and rushed to Raipur, where he was said to have called an emergency meeting.
Home minister Rajnath Singh tweeted that he was “extremely pained” to hear about the deaths and said his deputy — minister of state for home Hansraj Ahir —is going to Chhattisgarh to take stock of the situation. At a press conference hours later, he said he too might go to Chhattisgarh.
“It is a very sad and unfortunate incident... We have taken the attack as a challenge,” Singh said in New Delhi.
President Pranab Mukherjee, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi were among other leaders who condemned the attack.
Sukma is considered among India’s worst insurgency-hit regions that has seen several decades of bloody conflict. On March 11, suspected Maoist rebels ambushed a similar CRPF road opening party and killed at least 12 troopers in Sukma.
At the centre of the fight is the under-construction stretch of the road where the Maoists were attacked on Monday.
Following the March attack, officials said the rebels know that their only way to maintain control over the area is to block construction of the road, which will let soldiers directly into the Maoist heartland.
(with inputs from HTC in Delhi)