The exodus has begun. With about 700 armed CPI-M cadres closing in on Lalgarh to capture the strategic town the Maoists were driven out of last year, families are streaming out of the area with their cattle.
"People are leaving in droves. They are escaping as if there's a flood alert. It started on Friday, a day after armed CPI-M cadres reached Dharampur, 8 km from Lalgarh town. They will slaughter us all if we stay back," Amit Mahato of Rautara village told HT on Sunday.
"Our men are armed with light machine guns, AK-47s, SLRs (self-loading rifles) and other weapons and ammunition," said a local CPI-M leader on condition of anonymity.
But West Midnapore SP Manoj Verma claimed ignorance.
"I'm not aware of any such camp of armed CPI-M supporters in the district (where Lalgarh is located)," he said.
But the villagers know better and don't want to be around if bloody clashes break out between the CPI-M cadres and Maoists. Their fears have been compounded by loud explosions at night. CPI-M cadres camping at Harina, 2 km from Dharampur, have been making their presence felt by blasting bombs.
"On Friday night we saw bombs lighting up the sky. We were so scared we closed all the windows in our house," said Lalgarh resident Samapti Banerjee.
Of the dozens of villages "captured" by the CPI-M around Lalgarh since Wednesday, three — Borkala, Maity Para and Palasi — were secured without a single shot being fired. These villages, close to the Kangsabati river, are logistically important. Their capture will ensure that Maoists on the other side of the river won't be able to send reinforcements to ward off the advancing CPI-M raiders.
But it's not going to be a cakewalk for the CPI-M. Heavily armed Maoists in the surrounding forests are waiting for an opportune moment to strike at their adversaries, said a police official.
"They (Maoists) still have a lot of local support and could put up a stiff resistance," he said.