Ajai Sahni, executive director of the South Asia Terrorism Portal, puts the recent discovery of 875 rockets by the Andhra Pradesh police into sobering perspective. “The Hezbollah waged a war against Israel using 4,000-odd rockets”, he says. While those rockets may have been far superior to the ones seized in Andhra Pradesh, the danger that they represent is clear. The most frightening part of the discovery is that these rockets were being made locally, by small-scale industries in Chennai.
The Andhra Pradesh police first came to know of Maoist efforts to build rockets in May 2003. During a routine combing operation in the Bejengiwada forests on the Andhra-Orissa border, the police discovered a foundry, complete with lathe machines, drilling and welding machines, and a diesel generator. The foundry was used to make rockets. The police recovered Maoist internal memos, which revealed that they had tested three rockets by firing them at a helicopter a few days ago. Though none of the missiles hit the target — they reached a maximum height of 250 metres — the Maoists had successfully tested the technology .
Special intelligence bureau officials say that the Maoists obsession to have their own rockets started in 2001. That year, a large Maoist band attacked the Motu police station in the Malkangiri district of Orissa bordering Andhra Pradesh, and carried away a large cache of weapons including 2-inch mortars and some rockets kept for use by security personnel. The seized rockets provided the model for their own rockets.
The first Maoist rocket attack in Andhra Pradesh came in 2004, when they fired at a police station in Erragondapalem. They missed the target. Since then the Maoists have made four attempts to blow up police stations by using rockets. The most significant of these was the attack that took place on May 11, 2005, at Durgi, a rural police station in Guntur district. The Maoist cadres fired five rockets at the police station and the policemen’s quarters. Only one of the five rockets was able to reach and damage the station, which was 975 feet away.
Forensic experts, who have examined the latest consignment, say that the rockets have undergone massive improvement since then. They are no more the crude and bulky ones, used by Maoists last year. While the state police has sought the Army’s help in testing the seized rockets to assess their capability, Mahbubnagar district Superintendent of Police, Srinivasul Reddy, has said the latest rockets could be fired from a kilometre away.
The Maoists procure explosives for rockets and other devices from the open market, where it is easily available for a price. The explosives are widely used by contractors and construction companies to blast rocks. There are a dozen-odd explosive manufacturers in Andhra Pradesh. A few years ago, after Maoists killed Madhav Reddy, a minister in the Chandrababu Naidu government, the government asked all these units to make slurry-type explosives instead of the dry type. The slurry-type explosive has a delayed blast. The government thought this slow burn would help the targeted people escape. However, Maoists have found a way to hasten the process of ignition. Besides, dry explosives and gelatins are still easily available.
The Maoists have engineers and technicians working full time to fine-tune their weapons. Each Maoist zone has a technical team comprising 10 persons. The members are trained to attend to all technical problems, from handling a malfunctioning VHF radio set to assembling weapons and rockets. They are periodically deputed to foundries and engineering units in cities, to hone their skills.
Raghu, the Maoists’ ‘rocket man’, is one of the leading lights of the technical wing. It was his job to improve the Maoist weaponry. Raghu is an engineering graduate from Nellore and had set up shop in Chennai in 2002, by starting his own lathe, Bharath Fine Engineering, at Padi in the city’s industrial belt. Using this as cover, he gave small job work to six lathes and two foundries since July 2003. When he found that they could execute his orders as per the technical drawing and specifications he had given, he decided to place orders for the rockets and launchers.
By distributing the components around to these units spread over an 8-km radius, he made sure that none of the manufacturers would suspect the destructive end product that these components could make. “Our estimate is that he would have made about 800 to 1,000 rocket shells, since he started operations,” said DGP D Mukherjee. Andhra Police has seized most of the shells. The police have also discovered blocks meant to make the breach sections of revolvers. “This would have been his next project, had we not uncovered his operation,” Mukherjee said.
(With inputs from Samrat)