Calcutta, Oct. 14: Blood flowed in Bengal on the eve of the first-ever peace talks between Naxalites and the Andhra Pradesh government as a landmine blew up as many as six jawans in an area where Left extremists are known to be active.
The jawans of the Eastern Frontier Rifles were on a raiding mission in a forest in West Midnapore when the mine exploded this afternoon, fuelling suspicion that the militants could have lured them into a trap using a false tip-off as a bait.
District officials said the deafening blast was followed by a burst of gunshots from inside the forest.
The explosion came on a day two of the biggest Naxalite outfits, the People's War and the Maoist Communist Centre, formally announced a merger ' seen as a tactic to increase their bargaining power at the southern talks table.
The Bengal government had expressed reservations when the Congress regime in Andhra had agreed to hold talks with the Naxalites without making disarmament a condition.
The Left Front government has not ruled out talks with the rebels but has often wondered who it will talk to and how any peace process can progress unless violence stops.
No outfit has claimed responsibility for today's attack. But if the officials' suspicion about Naxalite involvement is established, it is certain to force the government to harden its stand and temper the hopes raised by the Andhra initiative.
The toll of six is high for a state that is otherwise free of extremism. The biggest offensive in Bengal in recent times was mounted by suspected Naxalites this February, killing eight ' again in West Midnapore.
In today's attack, four jawans were killed on the spot at Dumurgeria in the Ormara forest in Lalgarh, 200 km from Calcutta. Another died at Midnapore Medical College and Hospital hours later. One jawan was found dead near the scene of the blast in the evening.
The district officials wondered whether the rebels had sprung a red herring on the raiding party.
'There was information that top-ranking People's War and Maoist Communist Centre leaders had taken shelter in the Bankishol forest,' said an official.