New Delhi, India, Oct 24 – Indian police on Monday killed 24 rebels in a shoot-out in eastern India, one of the heaviest casualties inflicted in recent years on the Maoists who are waging a long-running insurgency.
Police said one commando was also killed after they ambushed at least 40 Maoist rebels gathered at a forest camp near the border of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh states, triggering the gunbattle.
“A total of 24 Maoists are dead, seven of them are women. We have identified seven bodies so far,” Mitrabhanu Mahapatra, the police chief of Malkangiri district where the clash occurred, told AFP by phone.
“We can confirm that two senior Maoist leaders are among the dead. One police commando who was injured in the gunbattle has also died.”
Weapons including four AK-47s and three self-loading rifles were recovered from the scene, some 640 kilometres (400 miles) from the state capital Bhubaneswar, said another officer, local sub-inspector C.K. Dharua.
India’s Maoist insurgency began in the 1960s, inspired by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, and has since cost thousands of lives.
The rebels, described by former prime minister Manmohan Singh as India’s most serious internal security threat, say they are fighting authorities for land, jobs and other rights for poor tribal groups.
Ten paramilitary commandos were killed in July in the eastern state of Bihar after suspected Maoist rebels ambushed their convoy and set off a series of homemade bombs.
– Deadliest incident –
In March suspected rebels triggered a powerful landmine blast in the central state of Chhattisgarh, killing seven policemen.
The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) website, which tracks separatist violence, said the Maoist casualties were the heaviest suffered in a single incident in the last few years.
The insurgency has claimed more than 7,000 civilian lives between 2005 and 2016, according to SATP.
Maoist sympathiser and author Varavara Rao cast doubt on the police description of Monday’s clash as a shoot-out.
“Cops surrounded a Maoist meeting and shot them in cold blood and terming it as an encounter…” Rao told the Indian Express.
“The influence of Maoists has come down and they have not launched any major attacks. So what was the reason for such drastic action against them?”
The rebels operate in at least 20 Indian states but are most active in the forested and resource-rich areas of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh.
They draw recruits from tribal communities whose members are often desperately poor and living in underdeveloped areas neglected by successive governments.
Government critics say attempts to end the revolt through tough security offensives are doomed to fail, and the real solution is better governance and development of the region.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been seeking to stem the insurgency by earmarking development funds for revolt-hit areas and improving policing.
Last year Modi urged Maoists to put down their guns and take up ploughs, saying “violence has no future”.
The remote forests of Malkangiri district are a major transit point for rebels because they border Maoist strongholds in Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, the Hindu newspaper said.
Malkangiri was the scene of an attack by the guerrillas on Indian security forces in 2008 in which 21 commandos were killed.