March 11: The troops were cut off and then cut down in a hail of bullets this morning on a road that has become the most dangerous in India.
On many occasions, the Maoists have posed a similar challenge to security forces in the same area, on the same road. Today’s was no different, except for the toll.
By evening, when clarity emerged from the initial cloud of confusion and mayhem, Chhattisgarh police confirmed that 16 people had been killed — 11 CRPF and four district force jawans and a civilian.
The Maoist ambush took place at Tahakabeda in Sukma district of the Bastar region, less than a month before the strife-torn region votes in the general election on April 10.
The spot, some 400km from state capital Raipur, is the southern tip of the infamous Jeeram valley, a few kilometres from the patch where the Maoists last year attacked a Congress convoy, killing 29 people, on National Highway 30 under the precincts of the same village.
The jawans were on a patrol to sanitise a stretch of the highway that is being widened. If the highway is widened, it will spell disaster for the rebels as it will quicken movement of troops and materials in the south Bastar region that is considered a “liberated zone”.
The highway — the only road that links Darbha with Konta on the southern tip of Bastar along the Andhra border — is indispensable for anti-Maoist operations. The Maoists have been opposed to the widening or relaying of the road, over which the police and the rebels have been fighting for control for over a decade.
The police suspect the ambush to be the handiwork of the powerful Dandakaranya special zonal committee (DKSZC) of the CPI (Maoists) that controls the Bastar region.
According to the additional director-general of police (intelligence), Mukesh Gupta, a joint team of CRPF and district force personnel — 34 CRPF and eight district force jawans — was on a routine road-opening exercise on foot patrol and was headed to Darbha from their Tongapal police camp.
The armed troops usually walk in a file, maintaining distance from each other. Today, they were divided into two batches.
The Maoists cut off the first batch from the second by 300 metres, encircling 15-20 troops in the first segment, about 4km from their base camp in Tongapal. Once the first batch was trapped, the rebels opened fire, officials quoted local police officers as saying.
When some troops tried to take cover under a small culvert, they might have stepped on an improvised bomb and died in the explosion. The other troops perhaps retaliated but could not escape the attack.
Based on reports culled from sources in the region, it appeared that the second batch was also engaged in gunfire by the guerrillas, so they could not advance further and provide reinforcement to colleagues leading the patrol. Gupta estimated that around 200 Maoists might have taken part in the action.
The lone civilian youth who got caught in the action and killed appeared to have biked unwittingly into the crossfire. The youth may not have heard the gunshots, probably because he was wearing earphones and listening to music on his mobile phone, local reports quoted a police officer as saying. The civilian was heading for Jagdalpur from Sukma, according to local police.
The guerrillas had reportedly burnt four tipper-trucks laden with road construction material, close to the spot and towards the north, probably to prevent the arrival of reinforcements. Local reports also suggested that the Maoists had blocked the road on the southern side with burnt tyres and felled trees once they had trapped the security personnel.
The Maoists frequently lay improvised bombs or dig potholes on this highway. In the past few years, the police have managed to increase their domination in this region, barring the Jeeram valley where maintaining round-the-clock vigil is difficult, sources said.
The patch between the divisional headquarters of Jagdalpur and Sukma town is close to Malkangiri district of Odisha, a contiguous forest belt replete with tall trees interspersed with bamboo thickets.
To the east are hills covered by dense forests shared by both Chhattisgarh and Odisha. To the west are very dense forests that stretch up to Dantewada.
The villages on both sides are few and far between. The rebel guerrillas, the police say, are familiar with the terrain and can camouflage themselves among tribals or disperse as smaller groups to the safe zones across the border in the forest hideouts of Odisha.
After last year’s attack on the Congress entourage, the Chhattisgarh police built a camp in Jeeram valley. But in skewed topography, a police camp even after every 2km may prove inadequate, according to police officers with anti-insurgency experience.
The Maoists looted the arms of the troops who were killed in the firing, the police said. Some troops’ faces were also disfigured by the rebels, they said.