Advancing security forces faced a massive 'human wall' and firing by Maoists and tribals in this troubled zone as West Bengal's Communist government launched an operation on Thursday to free the region of Left extremists.
A day after being prodded by the centre to reclaim this headquarters of Binpur 1 community development block, 200 km from state capital Kolkata, from the Maoists, a huge posse of state police personnel, backed by the central forces, moved in from their base camp at nearby Pirakata for 'Operation Lalgarh'.
However, soon after, the forces came up against a 'human wall' at Malida, as hundreds of tribals carrying traditional weapons like bows and arrows, shovels, pickaxes and canes blocked the way by felling big trees on the road as they shouted slogans like "Inqilab Zindabad" and "Maoism zindabad".
Using megaphones, the police warned the protesters to move away and clear the roads, but getting no response from the other side, the security forces started removing the tree trunks when they suddenly saw two Maoists standing in the nearby field with assault rifles. Immediately, the well-armed central forces came to the frontlines and the Maoists beat a hasty retreat.
The police started baton charging and lobbing tear gas shells, and succeeded in dispersing the protesters. Two rebels as well as a lensman accompanying the security forces were injured, eyewitnesses said, but police did not confirm the news.
The police raided some houses in the vicinity and detained a few people before resuming their march.
Violence continued unabated, with Maoists gunning down four activists of the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) at nearby Goaltor in West Midnapore district.
The four had been abducted on Wednesday, and their bodies with injury marks all over were found on Thursday, said Inspector General of police (Law and Order) Raj Kanojia.
A top Maoist leader K Koteshwar Rao alias Kishanjee claimed responsibility for the killings to a private television news channel.
A few kilometres ahead at Doima, the forces came under fire from some mud houses near the road, and the march was halted for some time as the securitymen ensured there was no danger.
Raj Kanojia said 18 people have been arrested, of whom three are from West Midnapore and 15 from Bankura.
Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhatacharjee said his government was ready to hold talks with tribals on their grievances, and appealed to the Lalgarh villagers not to get provoked by Maoist rebels and not let themselves be used as human shields by the Left radicals. State home secretary Ardhendu Sen said doors for discussions were open, but first the violence needed to stop.
He said similar operations will also be launched in Bankura and Purulia districts. "We will make all the 18 police stations in the three Maoist affected districts free of the rebels".
Maoist guerrillas have been active in organising a tribal movement alongside a group called the People's Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA).
Meanwhile, Kishanjee demanded that the centre and state government apologise to the tribal people of Lalgarh if they wanted a peaceful and amicable resolution to the stand-off.
"The prime minister (Manmohan Singh) and home minister (P Chidambaram) have started a psychological warfare by amassing huge forces. If they start the operations, we will resist with the help of the people who are with us," CPI-Maoist politburo member Kishanjee said over phone.
He said the rebel group has decided to call for a two-day shutdown beginning Monday in West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand and Bihar.
Lalgarh has been on the boil since last November when a landmine exploded on the route of the convoy of Chief Minister Bhattacharjee and then central ministers Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitin Prasada.
Complaining of police atrocities after the blast, the angry tribals launched an agitation virtually cutting off the area from the rest of the district.
During the last few days, the agitators have torched CPI-M offices, driven away the party's supporters and forced police to wind up several camps, thereby establishing a virtual free zone.
Maoists have been active in the three western districts of the state - West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia. They also backed the Trinamool-sponsored movement against the state government's bid to establish a chemical hub at Nandigram in East Midnapore district.