Maoist rebels launch counter-attack in West Bengal

The second phase of an anti-Maoist offensive suffers a setback as rebels overrun a paramilitary camp, killing at least 24 soldiers and looting the armoury.

KOLKATA // The second phase of an anti-Maoist offensive, dubbed Operation Green Hunt, which is to begin in four eastern states next week, has suffered a setback on Monday as Maoist rebels overran a paramilitary camp in West Bengal state, killing at least 24 soldiers and looting the armoury. About 80 rebels arrived in vans and on motorbikes and surrounded the camp in Shilda, about 210km north-west of the West Bengal capital of Kolkata in the state's east.

They threw grenades, shot at the soldiers and set fire to the camp, killing about two-thirds of the paramilitaries stationed there, as well as a local college student who was caught in the crossfire. "We have never suffered such a massive loss in one such attack in this state in the past," said Surajit Kar Purakayastha, an inspector general with the West Bengal Police. A couple of hours after the attack, Koteswar Rao, a senior Maoist leader, claimed responsibility and said it was in response to the government's planned launch of its clampdown on Maoist rebels in the region.

"If the government does not backtrack on this inhuman Operation Green Hunt and withdraw security forces from this region immediately, it is going to see more of these bloodbaths soon," said Mr Rao, second-in-command of the banned Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-M) who also goes by the nom-de-guerre, Kishanji. He was speaking by telephone from a hideout in forested western West Bengal. The elusive Maoist leader also said the attack marked the beginning of the Maoists' own offensive, Operation Peace Hunt, a planned series of assaults on security forces "targeted to bring back peace" in the region.

India's home minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, condemned Monday's attack and called on Maoist sympathisers to reject it as an outlandish attempt to overthrow the government in West Bengal. "Their goal is to seize power. Their weapon is violence. No organisation or group in a democratic republic has the right to take to violence to overpower the established legal authority," Mr Chidambaram said in a statement yesterday.

The rebels say they are fighting for the rights of the poor and marginalised. The tens of millions of rural poor and tribal peoples who have not seen the benefits of India's rapid economic growth in recent years make up the backbone of the Maoists' support. According to a home ministry report released last year, about 22,000 Maoist rebels are active in 20 of India's 29 states, and along with the party's political wing effectively control about a third of the country's territory. In many areas, the report said, they even run their own governments parallel to the state, and they are now spreading beyond rural areas into the cities.

The Maoists originally took up arms in 1967 to protest the government's marginalisation of the rural poor, but over the past few years the insurgency has grown increasingly bloody. At least 735 people, including civilians and security personnel, were killed in Maoist violence in India last year, up from a total of 640 in 2008. The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has identified Maoists as the "biggest internal security threat" facing India.

The government's decision last October to prepare a military operation against the rebels followed months of efforts to convince them to shun violence and enter into dialogue, as well as repeated appeals from various state authorities for the central government to intervene. The first phase of Operation Green Hunt, which is ongoing and which officials expect to last three to five years, was launched last November and is targeting the central states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

The second phase, which was announced last month and begins next week, will target the eastern states of Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal. Delhi has expressed hopes the second phase will be able to largely re-establish government control in the targeted area launches s and capture or kill up to 60 Maoist leaders within six months. Some Maoists said they were ready to confront the military - as evidenced by Monday's attack - while others called on the government to reconsider the operation as it could lead to large numbers of innocent villagers being killed.

Human rights campaigners also fear local populations will bear the brunt of the violence. "It would seem that the government prefers the Sri Lankan model of pursuing a military solution to insurgency rather than the United Kingdom model of political negotiation, which brought lasting peace in Northern Ireland," said Colin Gonsalves, a New Delhi-based legal and human rights activist. "What is the Sri Lankan model? If you need to take out two insurgents, you kill 20 [innocent people]."

In Kolkata last week, Mr Chidambaram said the offensive would be "measured, calibrated and careful". But with Monday's daring attack on Shilda, the rebels have already exposed vulnerabilities in the government forces. Kishanji, the Maoist second-in-command, said yesterday the Maoists sought peace and regretted the deaths of the soldiers, but said the rebels were "forced to fight and kill". "We are ready to talk with the government, provided that it withdraws its forces from our areas and releases all our men and women who are in police custody or jail."

Security experts, too, believe military action could exacerbate the cycle of violence and possibly even lead to a civil war. "The government is going to lose more hearts and minds to the Maoists if it forges ahead with the strike policy that brings nothing but bloodshed and disruption to people in the affected zones," said Mahendra Kumawat, retired chief of India's Border Security Force and former chairman of the India's anti-Maoist task force. "That is going to multiply our problems, not solve them. I wish the government all the best, but it isn't going to work."

Ajay Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, warned that India's security forces lacked strength in "numbers, training, transportation and arms" to defeat the Maoists. "It will just be a nibbling away at the peripheries, and a lot of security forces will be killed."