Thousands of security personnel on Friday fanned out in the forests of Chhattisgarh's Bastar region in search of Maoist extremists who killed 55 policemen in a well-planned attack, with Home Minister Ramvichar Netam describing scenes of the dead he saw as "gruesome".
A numbed Netam said that the guerrillas had "repeatedly axed" some of the policemen and smashed their heads at the end of a four-hour onslaught that shook the Indian establishment all the way from Raipur to New Delhi.
"I returned from the blast site. I have never witnessed such a gruesome scene," Netam said in Raipur. "The attack and its impact were beyond my expectations. Probably the horror scenes I witnessed will never get erased from my memory."
He added, "Some of the bodies were repeatedly axed and heads were smashed."
About 8,000 security personnel, mostly drawn from the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Chhattisgarh Armed Force (CAF), combed a vast forested stretch in Bijapur area of Bastar.
Sixteen CAF personnel and 39 Special Police Officers (SPOs), a group of civilians who assist the police in the campaign against Maoists, were killed in a meticulously planned attack on an isolated police camp at Rani Bodali village in Bijapur.
It was the bloodiest attack by leftwing extremists on security forces since the Maoist rebellion erupted in India in 1967.
"About 8,000 policemen have entered the Maoist den, from Bhairamgarh area. We will search out the rebels within an 80 km radius till sunset," a CRPF commander said over telephone. "The operation will continue for several days."
The commander's words betrayed the limitations imposed on the security forces by the unruly terrain, where sunset leaves the area virtually in rebel control.
Netam added, "Police have launched one of the biggest exercises in Chhattisgarh to avenge the killings. The rebels have to pay the price."
Local news channels on Friday splashed footage of the attack site. One scene showed a dog licking nearly dried up blood in the camp, located about 510 km from Raipur.
The Maoist attack began at 2 am and lasted almost until 6 am. Fresh security forces reached the scene almost five hours later, only to find 55 of the 74 policemen in the camp dead and others struggling to stay live.
B.K. Ponwar, who heads the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College in the state, said that the Maoists selected the area because it was where "Salwa Judum", an armed campaign by a pro-government tribal militia, emerged in June 2005 to take on the Maoists.
"The killing of policemen is a clear setback to the police and their morale but it is temporary," Ponwar added. The Chhattisgarh government set up the CTJWC in Bastar's Kanker district in 2005 to train Indian policemen in guerrilla warfare.
Mahendra Karma, a tribal leader of Bastar and founder of "Salwa Judum", said that the state government was to blame for Thursday's killings.
"It's a security lapse. The forces were already on high alert since a Lok Sabha MP was killed in Jharkhand this month. The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government lacks strategy," said the Congress legislator who tops the Maoist hit list.
Chhattisgarh has recruited about 5,000 SPOs from local tribes on a monthly salary of Rs.1,500 to act as spies and to assist the police force. A few have been given weapons training, but most are armed only with bows and arrows.
Bastar - a forested area largely inhabited by tribals - has been one of the oldest hubs of the Maoist movement in the country. The Maoists' goal is to bring about an armed revolution.