The wreckage of a government ambulance that was blown up by Maoists near Darbha on Saturday. (PTI)
April 12: Two Maoist landmine blasts in Bastar today killed 14 persons, including five CRPF jawans and seven election staff who had apparently ignored directives not to board vehicles while trekking back from booths.
News of the late morning blasts, 200km and half an hour apart, reached Raipur just when two senior officers were congratulating each other for Thursday’s “peaceful” polling in Chhattisgarh’s feared guerrilla stronghold of Bastar.
Most teams of polling staff deployed to Bastar’s interiors were yet to complete their return journeys because they were travelling on foot across hilly and forested terrain — spending the nights in security force camps and setting off again in the morning.
One such group of nine had walked 6km from their booth to guerrilla hotbed Kutru yesterday and set off early this morning for the Gudma police camp 25km away. A bus, requisitioned for the polls and carrying the electronic voting machines, trailed them.
From Gudma, the group was to be driven 20km to the Bijapur district headquarters on a sanitised highway.
The seven local schoolteachers and two forest guards who made up the group were probably exhausted and, a short distance ahead of Gudma, boarded the bus following them. They may also have been lulled by the largely uneventful polling and the 52 per cent turnout that defied a rebel boycott call.
Around 11.30am, near a place called Ketulnaar, the mines went off. “Six of the polling employees died on the spot and one during treatment,” Raipur inspector-general of police G.P. Singh said.
The dead include five schoolteachers and two forest guards. The other two polling staff, the driver and his helper are injured, two of them critically.
The day’s other blast took place around 11am, on National Highway 30 near Darbha in an area where the Maoists had wiped out nearly the entire state Congress leadership last May and killed 16 security personnel last month.
This morning, a CRPF road-opening patrol of 10 jawans had apparently flagged down and hitched a ride on an empty ambulance of the 108 Sanjeevani Express, a state-run emergency medical service in the Maoist belt.
Jawans are banned from boarding any vehicle without an anti-landmine vehicle leading it. The blast — the mine was planted at least five feet under the newly repaired road — flung the ambulance’s engine over half a kilometre away, killed five jawans as well as the driver and the lone paramedic, and left the other troops injured, two critically.
“A few of the jawans were probably unwell and had therefore boarded the ambulance,” was the feeble-sounding explanation from inspector-general Singh.
Police sources said the mine was detonated almost immediately after the jawans boarded the ambulance, reinforcing the open secret that the Maoists, who have booby-trapped roads all over the state, have an extensive network of spies watching troop movement.
Someone would have seen the jawans get into the ambulance and immediately alerted the nearest detonating squad. The rebels rarely attack civilian vehicles, and an “apology” for killing the polling staff is expected now along with a plea of mistaken identity.
Officers said there was no firing after the day’s blasts, indicating that “just one or two persons” had triggered them and fled, and that no guerrillas were present. This could be why the voting machines were not looted at Ketulnaar, either.
Sources said one of the five voting machines in the bus was damaged but the data stored were safe. “Repolling will be ordered if the machines are found damaged,” state chief electoral officer Sunil Kujur said.
All the nine injured have been flown to Raipur for treatment.
Some 20 returning polling teams are now holed up at Gudma, too afraid to be driven to Bijapur. The authorities plan to evacuate them on choppers — probably tomorrow morning — after sanitising the take-off and landing areas and building makeshift helipads.
On Wednesday, the Maoists had killed three jawans of the CRPF’s elite CoBRA battalion while they were trekking back to their camp in Sukma after escorting a polling party.
During the 2009 polls, the rebels had blown up a jeep killing five polling staff in Rajnandgaon district. Some 24 people were killed across Bastar then.
The rest of Chhattisgarh votes on April 17 and 24.