Lucknow, Nov. 20: Suspected Naxalites blew up a van carrying policemen, killing 17 of them, in Uttar Pradesh this morning.
The extremists were lying in wait near a culvert for the van carrying over 40 Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) jawans and five policemen near Narcoti village in Chandauli district, about 120 km from Varanasi. Around 8.30 am, as the van slowed down before the culvert, the rebels set off landmines that tossed up the truck and then opened fire at the team.
Thirteen policemen were killed on the spot and three succumbed to their injuries on the way to hospital in Varanasi. One person died after reaching the clinic.
'Local residents heard a deafening sound. The truck was tossed into the air before it crashed to the ground. The explosion also caused a mammoth crater,' said Jaspal Singh, director-general of police (PAC), Uttar Pradesh.
The extremists, believed to be of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) that was form-ed after the merger of the People's War and the Maoist Communist Centre, also snatched weapons from the ambushed team, including three AK-47s, eight SLRs and five grenades, police said.
The police believe the team was led into a trap. Yesterday, Naxalites raided the house of a forest officer in Chandauli, close to the spot of the ambush and killed two forest guards and another person. They left behind a message saying that they were retaliating against the exploitation of local tribals.
Chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav has announced compensation of Rs 1 lakh each for the relatives of the dead and directed state police chief B.K.P. Nair to visit the spot and suggest ways to tackle the menace. The government also ordered a magisterial probe.
Naxalite activities in the Sonbhadra, Chandauli and three districts bordering Bihar and Jharkhand in the Varanasi division started around 1996 with the rebels championing the cause of tribals.
From a group of rag-rag radicals, the banned organisations have developed a network and almost run a parallel government in the Naugarh forest area, close to the ambush spot.
According to intelligence sources, there is a 250-member ' most aged between 13 and 21 ' guerrilla squad spread across the tribal-dominated blocks. 'In these areas, the Naxalites mainly champion the cause of the tribal population's resettlement in forest land from which they have been ousted by forest officers,' said Aloke Sinha, the principal home secretary.
'We had no idea that they have sophisticated detonators although we were aware of the infiltration of the Nepali Maoists. Now it is clear that our homegrown radicals possess state-of-the-art weapons,' said the state police chief.
Over the last few years, the extremists limited their attacks to forest officials, mostly snatching their weapons. In 2001, a contractor was killed in Sonbhadra market in what is seen as the first incident of killing by Naxalites in the state. Next year, four more persons were killed in Sonbhadra.
Last year, they extended their ambit of operation, snatching eight weapons from the police.
The porous border with Nepal that passes through at least 10 districts and the extremists' proximity to Maoists from the country are a major worry for the security forces.
'From Lakhimpur Kheri to Balarampur in central UP and Gorakhpur, Sonbhadra of eastern UP, there is a vast open border which has helped the Nepali Maoists maintain steady contacts with their comrades in India,' said Union minister of state for home Sri Prakash Jaiswal. He said the Centre is planning to add 22 more companies of the Special Security Bureau that mans the border.