The arrested youth. Picture by Samir Mondal
Midnapore, June 16: The joint forces killed at least eight insurgents near Lalgarh this morning, inflicting the biggest loss yet on Maoists in Bengal in an operation credited to pinpointed information and a risky departure that let the troops respond fast by moving at night.
The deaths ó the largest body count in an anti-Maoist operation in the state ó occurred two days before the joint forces complete a year of deployment in Lalgarh.
Over the past 12 months, the forces had killed 12 rebels, mostly in ones or twos. Unlike on earlier occasions when casualties were suspected but could not be established, the forces have now shown eight bodies.
The assault on the Maoist camp at Ranja forest adjoining Duli village in West Midnapores Salboni involved 700 security personnel. The encounter unfolded between 4.30am and 10am but several key decisions and actions were put in place in the dead of night between midnight and 4am.
Among the dead were two camp leaders and three women, two wearing salwar-kameez and the third a sari. The police suspect more casualties but feel that the other bodies could have been taken away by the guerrillas.
An injured suspect, whose age the police put at possibly 14, has been arrested. Officials said no security personnel was injured in the raid that took the Maoists totally by surprise.
Arms and ammunition, including an AK-47 rifle and a self-loading rifle, and improvised explosive devices have been found at the encounter spot. Some of the weapons had markings of the Eastern Frontier Rifles, whose 24 jawans were massacred and arms looted by the Maoists at the Shilda camp in February.
S. Purakayastha, the law and order inspector-general, said the group of rebels functioned under Maoist leader Bikash, even though he may not have been there.
The police, who had been tapping the cellphones of some Maoists, said they had come to know a couple of days ago that about 40 rebels were camping in the Ranja forest near Duli, about 25km from Lalgarh.
Three days ago, the police had found some arms in Barumesia forest, about 2km from Duli, which led them to conclude that Maoists were in the vicinity.
Last night, the forces received a specific tip-off that a group of Maoists was camping just outside Duli village. Usually, security forces do not advance at night because of the possibility of ambushes and mines on the roads.
However, at midnight, 700 personnel derived from the CRPF, the Cobra commando force and state police set out from their camps in Pirakata, Goaltore, Salboni and Khadibandh.
The decision to move at night was apparently taken on the assessment that the information was reliable and the forces still retained the surprise element.
By 2.30am, the forces had reached the villages ringing Duli but learned from local contacts that improvised explosive devices had been planted at all four approaches to the Maoist camp. The 50-strong Cobra unit was then asked to move through the forest, scour the entry points and neutralise the bombs.
By 4am, the Cobra unit had accomplished its task and given the all-clear. The forces, which had converged from the four flanks, then split themselves into two groups and advanced. One group surrounded Duli village to cut off possible reinforcements for the rebels and the other the Maoist camp.
Around this time, the Maoists realised that the police had arrived and started shooting at us, said West Midnapore superintendent of police Manoj Verma. We also started shooting back and the encounter lasted about five hours. We have found eight bodies. The surprise element worked in our favour.
Police sources said powerful searchlights helped the forces pick out some of the rebels. We could see the Maoists hurriedly trying to take position. So we could easily take aim and shoot, a policeman said. We were sheltered behind trees.
Eventually, the Maoists managed to escape through a narrow forest path, leaving behind arms. The police did not explain why more rebels could not be arrested.
The AK-47 had markings of the Eastern Frontier Rifles second battalion and an SLR cartridge was that of the third battalion, Verma said. They may have been the ones looted from the EFRs Shilda camp. We will have to verify that.
DGP Bhupinder Singh described the operation as a big success.