Sultan Bathery (North Kerala), Feb. 19: Four tribals and one policeman died in the Wayanad forests after the landless Adivasis, who have illegally occupied the Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary for the past one-and-a-half months, clashed with law enforcement agencies this morning.
About 50 people on either side were injured during pitched battles throughout the day. Official sources, including the chief ministerís office, put the death count at two: one tribal and a policeman.
The policeman, A. Vinod of Kerala Armed Police, had been taken hostage by the tribals during flush-out operations in the morning. According to the office of the Kerala director-general of police, Vinod bled to death after being hacked with a sword.
The condition of one forest official, who was also taken hostage but was rescued by the police in the evening, is serious as he, too, had been hacked.
The violence erupted around seven in the morning when a 500-strong force of police and forest officials moved into the sanctuary. The plan of the force, initially, was to get the 1,000-odd tribal families occupying the sanctuary to flee.
Several rounds of teargas shells were fired. The tribals braved the shelling and confronted the force with stones, knives, swords and bows and arrows. From then on, the clashes continued intermittently.
The police rounded up about 150 tribals in the first round of operations. But over 500 of them withdrew into the deep forests after capturing the policeman and the forest official. The tribals poured petrol over the policeman, who was then shown to the chasing policemen with the warning that he would be burnt to death if the operations continued.
The law enforcement agencies stopped the operation for nearly three hours but decided to launch their offensive again around five in the evening. It was in this action that the tribals and the policeman died.
The last phase of the action saw violence against the media, too. The camera of a Malayalam television channel was smashed and several reporters were beaten up. Both the police and the tribals contributed to the attack on the media.
Though confirmation is available for only five deaths, tribal activists at Sultan Bathery claim that as many as 15 of their colleagues are lying dead in the deep forests.
Signs of an imminent flare-up were there since Tuesday, when the tribals had taken 19 hostages and released them after 18 hours.
Tribal leader C.K. Janu had warned that they would fight to the finish. She had said tribals had occupied the sanctuary because the Congress-led state government had failed to fulfil its promise of giving five acres of land to all tribal families in the state.
Chief minister A.K. Antony had made the promise last year after a protracted agitation by various tribal groups.