In what is seen as the largest maoist attack in West Bengal, 80 Maoist rebels torched eight vehicles and fired at a paramilitary camp and at workers' huts for about two hours so as to scuttle a road project.
The Maoists, led by a woman, struck early on Thursday in their effort to halt work on the project in their stronghold Belpahari in West Midnapore district, which borders Jharkhand.
The Maoist squad burnt eight vehicles of the Prime Minister's Gram Sadak Yojana road project. The road link, Maoists believe, will give security forces better access to rebel hideouts, news reports quoting police said on Friday.
"The guerrillas use a forest corridor to travel to and from Jharkhand. If good roads are built, security forces can step up vigil," said an official.
Media reports said about 25 women were part of the group that arrived in the wee hours and split into two. One surrounded the India Reserve Battalion camp at Chhurimara about 250 km from Kolkata, and the other advanced to the project labourers' huts.
The Maoists, who also set on fire three houses, left behind an explosive, supposedly a landmine, in a mustard field.
"For two hours they fired at the camp challenging them in Hindi to come out and fight. Not one among the 70-75 jawans stepped out. Even the sentries positioned behind sandbags scurried inside," said a labourer.
They pasted posters while the paramilitary soldiers challenged by the rebels stayed inside their camp 300 metres away, reports said.
"A tall and lean woman with cropped hair was giving orders to her comrades in Bengali and Hindi," a labourer said.
Police suspect that the woman might be Sabita Kumari, who belongs to Jharkhand and is in her early 20s.
The rebels, dressed in army fatigues, shook the labourers awake and assembled them on the roadside where barrels of diesel were stored. "They ordered us to empty the barrels on the vehicles and set fire to them."
The incident is the latest in a series of attacks in the region in the run-up to a statewide shutdown called by Maoists December 14.
On Tuesday, two paramilitary personnel in Belpahari were injured in a landmine explosion.
On September 21, at least two policemen were killed and several others, including photojournalists and police officers, seriously injured when a landmine planted by the Maoists exploded in Lalgarh area of West Midnapore district.
A Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader and his bodyguard were killed the same month in the district.