Maoist rebels derailed a high-speed train packed with sleeping passengers into the path of a freight train in eastern India today, killing at least 80 people, police said. It was the deadliest Maoist attack in recent memory and is likely to ramp up pressure on the government to consider calls for deploying the military in its fight against the rebels. Police warned the death toll could rise further with more bodies feared trapped in the mangled wreckage after 13 carriages of the Mumbai-bound express from Kolkata careened off the tracks in a remote area called Midnapore, 135 kilometres away from Kolkata, in the night around 1.30 am local time (midnight UAE time). The casualties mounted after a cargo train coming in from the opposite direction collided with the derailed wreck even as passengers were trying to wriggle out. The railways minister, Mamata Banerjee, said the train had been derailed by a "severe bomb blast", but officials said they were looking at evidence that metal plates used to secure sections of track had been removed. "It is a clear case of sabotage. The Maoists have done it," West Bengal police chief Bhupinder Singh told reporters at the site. He said Maoist leaflets had been found scattered by the tracks. The Press Trust of India said it had received a call claiming responsibility by the Maoist-backed People's Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA), although a PCPA spokesman later contacted the news agency to deny the group's involvement. "The death toll has risen to 80 and we are still recovering more bodies," West Bengal police inspector general Surajit Kar Purakayastha told AFP. More than 200 people were reported injured, some of them critically. Four of the carriages that slammed into an oncoming goods train were badly crushed and flipped on their sides leaving body parts clearly visible amid the twisted metal. Rescue workers with bolt cutters struggled to free anyone still alive inside. One survivor, Vinayak Sadna, said he had been sleeping when his carriage lurched violently to one side and then flipped over, flinging passengers around the compartment. "I ended up stuck between two seats with an iron bar crushing my hand," Sadna said. "I was trapped for three hours before I was pulled out. My wife is still missing."
Paramedics treated the injured beside the track, while the most serious cases were evacuated by air force helicopters. More than 80 passengers were taken to Kharagpur Railway Hospital where medical staff were overwhelmed by the number of wounded, some of them with serious head and spinal injuries. "We just aren't set up for something like this," said hospital director Vivekanondo Mishra. The Maoist rebellion, which the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh has labelled the biggest threat to the country's internal security, began in West Bengal in 1967 and has since spread to 20 of India's 29 states.
The rebels say they are fighting for the rights of landless tribespeople and farmers left behind by India's rapid economic expansion. West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya said the latest attack warranted a review of the government's counter-insurgency strategy. "We have to find ways to counter the Maoist menace. Innocent people are being killed," he told a press briefing in Kolkata. The government launched a coordinated offensive, dubbed Operation Greenhunt, against the rebels in November 2009 with more than 60,000 paramilitary and state police.
The operation has produced few tangible results and Maoist attacks have continued unabated. India's home minister P Chidambaram - who has borne the brunt of public criticism - recently acknowledged that strategic changes were needed. Hours after the train attack, Mr Chidambaram held a pre-scheduled meeting with the head of the army, General VK Singh. The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the government "lacked the willpower" to take the Maoists on. "Internal security is the responsibility of the government. It is not a law and order problem," said the senior BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi. * AFP