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Indian boot camp trains recruits against Maoist rebellion

A huge explosion and men locked in mock combat on a sun-baked hillside are signs of the government's toughening resolve to crush a raging Maoist insurgency.

india Updated: May 13, 2010 14:41 IST

A huge explosion and men locked in mock combat on a sun-baked hillside are signs of the government's toughening resolve to crush a raging Maoist insurgency.

"Fight guerrillas like a guerrilla," screams Basant Ponwar, director of the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College, which has sent 12,500 commandos into battle against the Maoists since 2005.

The rebels, who are active across east and central India, massacred 76 policemen in the Kanker district of Chhattisgarh state on April 6 -- their deadliest strike since the insurgency emerged in 1967.

The carnage, which followed an attack in February when Maoists shot 24 policemen in West Bengal state, may prove a watershed in the government's long and fruitless anti-insurgency campaign.

"State governments and Indian security agencies who suffered at the hands of the Maoists are now sending their men and women to my college to learn to survive -- and to kill," said Ponwar, a former infantry commander.

Ponwar's facility in Kanker, 150 kilometres (90 miles) from Raipur, trains both police officers and paramilitary troops, and the national government plans to set up 20 more such units as it tries to end the insurgency.

"These men are training to take on the Maoists who are active in about 230 of India's 605 districts," Ponwar said in the 300-acre (120-hectare) complex. "We run a tight ship. Overweight boys who come here are soon knocked into shape."

India last year launched an offensive, dubbed Operation Green Hunt, in which 58,000 federal paramilitary forces backed by local police are trying to flush out the left-wing rebels.

The Maoists are a loose coalition of about 20,000 insurgents and little is known of their leadership structure, experts say, but the government considers them to be biggest homegrown security threat to the country.

They now have control over swathes of resource-rich land in central and eastern India in a so-called "Red Corridor" that stretches across 20 of the 29 Indian states.

With the stated aim of overthrowing the democratic government by 2060, the rebels use automatic weapons, landmines and makeshift bombs to target police patrols, alleged informers, rail tracks, schools and government buildings.

Their income is thought to come mostly from wealthy sympathisers, extortion and racketeering, and taxes levied on villagers in areas where they run their own administrations.

Ponwar predicted the government offensive would fail as long as the Maoists, who claim to be fighting for the rights of the poor, continue to draw significant support and protection from villagers.

"Maoist guerrillas so far have done a good job in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere in India," Ponwar told AFP. "Civilians are the centre of gravity in this dirty war and the side that enjoys their confidence will win."

Despite the Kanker disaster, India refuses to use its vast army or air power against the Maoists. Instead, paramilitary troops and police forces are being boosted.

"The April 6 massacre of CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) paramilitary soldiers was due to a tactical blunder by the troops," state police director general Vishwa Ranjan told AFP in Chhattisgarh capital Raipur.

He blamed poor training for the carnage -- in which 300 guerrillas launched a co-ordinated attack -- and says the police are better prepared for the task.

"We have put them on the run from the northern parts of Chhattisgarh and now we are going ahead with surgical strikes involving police personnel trained in special operations," he said.

"Maoists have militarized themselves," said Ranjan, adding that some of his 46,000-strong police force now trains alongside India's Special Forces, paramilitary soldiers and border guards in jungle warfare.

During the exercise at the training camp, men in camouflage appeared from undergrowth, firing blank rounds from assault rifles as they took on another team defending a hilltop commando base.

"They are now ready for business because they have learnt that forests are their ally, darkness their weapon," said instructor Javed Ansari as men ran up a steep hillside in 46-degree Celsius (115 degree Fahrenheit) heat.

Ponwar trains 6,000 personnel every year at the college in the heart of Chhattisgarh's Maoist stronghold, where rebel fighters have armed themselves with the latest weapons and explosives stolen from an armoury in 2007.

Paramilitary trooper A.K. Shukla was six days short of graduating from the college.

"A group of 36 of us were sent here to train after Maoists killed 11 of our men in Orissa state and now we are itching to take the tiger in its den," said Shukla, who has learnt to survive on snakes and insects in the jungles.

The college has also begun a "hearts and minds" mission through five bases it has set up in a 400-kilometre (250-mile) radius where rookie commandos help out residents of villages and gather intelligence on Maoists.

"We want to develop many such oases of peace and then connect them across Chhattisgarh," Ponwar said. "This is a slow process and it will take time."

First Published: May 13, 2010 14:41 IST