Militants armed with advanced weapons ambushed a military convoy in Manipur’s Chandel district bordering Myanmar on Thursday morning, killing at least 18 soldiers and injuring 11 others as officials called it one of the worst such attacks on the army.
Authorities said a Dogra Regiment team was on a routine road opening patrol (ROP) along Moltuk village, around 110 kilometres south of state capital Imphal, when the guerrillas attacked the group with rocket-propelled grenades and IEDs.
An Assam Rifles (South) spokesperson said, “All the victims have been evacuated to the military hospital at Leimakhong."
Army spokesperson Col Rohan Anand said in Delhi, "Eighteen armymen were killed and 11 injured in the attack."
Initially, there was conflicting information on the death toll, with some reports saying the ultras ambushed at least 20 security personnel.
A highly-placed government official told HT that the dead, including one militant, were charred beyond recognition.
“It is possible that the army vehicles had carried inflammable products which caught fire during the attack,” he said.
Analysts say the incident points to an intelligence failure and may have been provoked by the reported killing of a woman by soldiers this week following which the district observed a complete shutdown on Wednesday.
The NSCN-Khaplang group, a Naga militant organisation, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was aided by two other outfits.
Top government officials went into a huddle, as defence minister Manohar Parrikar, home minister Rajnath Singh, national security adviser Ajit Doval and army chief General Dalbir Singh discussed the events unfolding in the northeast where security forces have been ambushed three times in less than three months.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi termed the attack 'mindless'.
Today’s mindless attack in Manipur is very distressing. I bow to each and every soldier who has sacrificed his life for the Nation.— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) June 4, 2015
A home ministry source said security forces were asked to respond with an iron fist, with all resources at their disposal to be mobilised.
“We will not allow sacrifices of our soldiers to go waste,” Rajnath Singh tweeted after the meeting.
The army chief will visit the site of the massacre on Friday and assess the ground situation in Manipur amid the force intensifying its operations in the area.
Encounters with the armed forces and ambushes have returned to haunt the northeast after the NSCN-K junked a 14-year-old ceasefire in March. The group has since then killed at least 15 security personnel across Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.
Sources said several Meitei (Imphal valley-based) guerrilla groups like the NSCN-K were holed up in Chandel district.
“We suspect that the insurgents knew about the impending movement of the Dogra Regiment team and had planned accordingly,” an official said.
The Meitei groups, on the run for quite some time, are believed to have formed an “axis of evil” with the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW), an umbrella front helmed by the Paresh Baruah faction of the United National Front of Assam, or Ulfa (Independence).
The Indo-Myanmar border in the area is largely unguarded with no presence of security forces, either army or paramilitary, at many stretches.
“There are reasons to believe that the insurgents may have crossed over to Myanmar after carrying out the attack,” said an official.
Security personnel have struggled to contain unrest in the trouble-torn state despite the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Afspa) conferring upon them extraordinary powers and legal immunity.
Minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju announced on Thursday that the contentious law will stay on in the north-eastern states other than Tripura where it was repealed on May 27 by the state government after 18 years.
Manipur is home to dozens of guerrilla outfits and tribal groups that have been waging a war against the establishment for decades, accusing the government of exploiting the region’s rich natural resources while neglecting local development.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi called the attack dastardly and cowardly, and hoped that the killers of the “vanguards of our national integrity” will be brought to justice at the earliest.
“Extremely sad to hear about the attack on the army convoy in Manipur where several of our young jawans lost their lives,” said her son and Congress vice-president, Rahul Gandhi. “We stand with each of them in this hour of tragedy.”