India steels itself for ‘internal war’ with rebels

INDIAN security services began rounding up Maoist rebels across the country’s Red Belt yesterday as the government faced heavy criticism a day after 76 policemen were slaughtered in the bloodiest attack yet by the country’s Naxalite forces.

Home Minister P. Chidambaram flew to Chhattisgarh state yesterday – the scene of Tuesday’s bloody ambush by rebels on police and paramilitary forces – where he said India was facing an internal war and called for calm in the face of national outrage at the killings.

“If this is a war, it is a war thrust on the state by those who do not have a legitimate right to carry weapons,” Mr Chidambaram said.

“To our offer of talks, they (Maoist rebels) have replied with a savage and brutal act of violence. Nevertheless we must remain calm and hold our nerve. This is a long, drawn-out struggle that will take two to three years, probably more.”

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spent Tuesday night in emergency meetings with top ministers, defence officials and national security advisers to consider a response to the attack, which has sparked renewed criticism of the government’s Naxalite strategy.

The central government has ruled out calls to send in army reinforcements to help demoralised Central Reserve Police and paramilitary forces, which form the frontlines of the government’s battle against the rebels.

But Mr Chidambaram yesterday refused to rule out calling in the Indian Air Force, although he would not comment on reports that unmanned aerial drones were to be deployed across the dense forests and mountains of central and eastern India, where the Maoist threat is concentrated.

A dozen Maoists have been arrested since the attack, in which a battalion from the Central Reserve Police Force walked into a deadly trap at Dantewada after a false tip-off. But the leaders of the Maoist force – variously estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000 – remained elusive.

Dantewada, in Chhattisgarh’s remote south Bastar region, is part of the Maoists’ proclaimed “liberated zone” where the civil administration has been forced out by a rebel parallel government.

The rebels, called Naxalites after Naxalbari village in West Bengal, where a peasant uprising began in 1967, have waged a four-decade war in support of economic rights for hundreds of millions of poor farmers, labourers and tribal people whom they say are being kicked off the land to make way for multinational mining companies.

The Maoist insurgency has since spread to 20 of India’s 29 states.

The government has intensified its offensive against the rebels in recent months, launching Operation Green Hunt across six states of the so-called Red Belt, which runs from Uttar Pradesh in the north, across central India and down to the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

But Tuesday’s attack, in which a rebel force of up to 800 lured police into a deadly trap, detonated landmines and cut off all exits before opening fire, shows a growing sophistication within Naxalite ranks as well as a formidable armoury.

Chief ministers from all Naxal-affected states are expected to meet national security chiefs and defence heads in coming days to review strategies for eliminating the rebels.

Former Indian Intelligence Bureau chief Ajit Doval also criticised the Chhattisgarh operation’s clear lack of “ground capacity”.

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