Security forces gunned down 12 suspected Maoist rebels, including three child soldiers in full battle fatigues, after a fierce shootout in the jungles of Palamu in Jharkhand late on Monday, police said.
Acting on a tip-off that CPI (Maoist) rebels were planning to extort money from local miners, police tightened security in the area. When the group approached a checkpoint in vehicles, security forces got out and opened fire.
Among the bodies retrieved from the encounter site were those of three children. Their identities could not be ascertained immediately. They wore olive green uniforms that Maoists generally wear, police said, adding that they were armed.
“There were three children, aged 14-15 years, among those killed in the encounter,” Director General of Police Jharkhand, DK Pandey said. “They are poisoning innocent minds.”
Police and human rights groups have long accused Maoists of using child soldiers, with the rebels sometimes making parents of poor families hand over their children with promises of food and a better life in camps. In some cases they take away the children forcibly.
Among the dead was also a rebel leader with a Rs 500,000 bounty on his head. Police said he was wanted for planting an explosive device inside the corpse of a police constable in an incident two years ago.
Monday's encounter that lasted two hours took place near Bakoria village, about 140km from state capital Ranchi. The rebels were reportedly travelling in two vehicles. While one vehicle managed to escape, the rebels on-board the other retaliated and opened fire on the forces.
"When the encounter ended at 2am (on Tuesday), we found 12 bodies of the ultras during a search operation," Palamu zone inspector general A Natrajan said.
"Eight arms and 200 rounds of ammunition besides other items were recovered from the spot."
Monday’s encounter is the first major shootout between the security forces and the Maoists since the Dumka attack in April last year when rebels had ambushed a police vehicle and killed six policemen.
A combing operation is underway in the area. Senior police and CRPF officials were camping at the site which is very close to National Highway 75 that connects Ranchi with Uttar Pradesh.
All of Jharkhand’s 24 districts are affected by the Maoist insurgency. However, over the last couple of years, Maoists have been on the back foot in the state. The rise of several splinter groups -- there are altogether 17 such groups and few of them are allegedly working hand in hand with forces -- has delivered a major blow to Maoists.
In the last three years, security forces have captured or killed more than 50 armed Maoist cadres and leaders. Left wing violence has claimed more than 1,200 lives in the state since 2000.