Chaibasa (West Singhbhum), Dec. 20: Opening a strategic flank near the Orissa border, suspected Maoist Communist Centre guerrillas killed at least 14 persons — 11 of them Jharkhand policemen — after drawing the victims into a minefield with two decoy murders.
The ambush and the gun battle involving 70 armed extremists and two Jharkhand police squads took place in the Saranda forest range of West Singhbhum district late on Thursday night.
Police said the extremist squad was led by an elderly woman, who was seen egging the guerrillas on with “abusive” language.
A strike as sweeping and fierce as this has rarely happened before in the tribal-dominated district, triggering fears among law-enforcers that the extremists have now found a staging post for launching attacks and withdrawing into their strongholds in the neighbouring state before reinforcements can arrive.
Police said immediate suspicion fell on the MCC as it was believed to be covertly working in the area for the last four years. A Naxalite base in the district carries ominous implications for the state government as West Singhbhum is one of the few districts of Jharkhand where extremist-related activities were unheard of till four years ago.
The attackers trapped their quarry through an elaborate plan stretched over three days and killed two persons to lure the policemen into the ambush spot.
On December 17, a forester was killed by the extremists for refusing to part with his firearm. The same day, the headman of Bitkelsoi, a village nearby, was killed and then set ablaze for being an alleged police informer.
Informed of the incidents, two teams of policemen set out for Saranda forest. While one team headed by DSP, B. Toppo, entered the forest from Kiriburu, the other team reached the forest from Manoharpur. Kiriburu is around 60 km from Chaibasa, the district headquarters, and Manoharpur 80 km.
“Both the teams joined each other at Digha village near Bitkelsoi. They managed to recover the charred body of the headman and were returning through the Jaraikela forest route,” a police officer said.
Somewhere between Bitkelsoi and Tirilposi (see map), the patrol party stumbled on landmines laid by the extremists.
“At least five mines exploded first. The mines were of low intensity. But they damaged all the seven vehicles in which 60 to 70 police personnel were travelling. As the men came out of the vehicles, MCC activists opened fire,” a police source said.
According to the district superintendent of police Manoj Kumar Mishra, the gun battle started at 5 in the evening and continued for two hours. “All our casualties were due to the gun shots they received from the MCC workers,” Mishra said.
However, one of the police officers who survived the onslaught told The Telegraph that the battle continued beyond 10 pm.
“They had positioned themselves strategically and continued to fire indiscriminately on us. Although we retaliated, we could not match them as they were organised and the raiding parties were in total disarray,” another policeman said.
Officials admitted that the MCC activists snatched arms from the police squad which was unable to do anything. The MCC activists also lobbed grenades and Molotov cocktails at the police party from different corners.
“The panic-stricken policemen ran for their lives. Some of the survivors spent the night in the forest and returned early today,” an officer said.
It is learnt that two inspectors -- one from the Kiriburu police station and another from the Jamda police outpost – are among the dead. Witnesses claimed that some MCC guerrillas stripped one of the dead and pasted posters on the body.
“We had suggested that the police teams should return from a different route, not the one that the team had taken to enter the forest area. But our suggestions were overruled and we started returning from the Kiriburu route. We were totally caught unawares by the landmine blasts and that proved to be the most crucial point for the MCC,” a police official said.
Police officers fear that the toll could go up. Mishra said 14 bodies have been recovered till this evening. “Of these 14 victims, three were civilians. One of our inspectors, Malay Kumar Ghosh, is untraceable. The bodies are being brought to Chaibasa for post-mortem,” he added.
According to Mishra, state director general of police R.R. Prasad and senior police officials are reaching Chaibasa tonight. The district administration is reported to have advised chief minister Babulal Marandi against visiting the spot tomorrow w, given the low morale and rebellious mood of the policemen.
A section of the police feels that the attack was in retaliation to last year’s killing of a suspected MCC activist in Bitkelsoi during a combing operation.
Officials said the police force of Sundergarh district of Orissa has started raiding the areas that border West Singhbhum.