Bhopal/Raipur, Dec. 16: About 100 imprisoned Maoists snatched their guards’ guns and broke out of a Chhattisgarh jail this evening in a 15-minute operation timed perfectly between the chaos of dinner and the evening security drill.
The rebels shot and injured two guards and ran out of the Dantewada district jail, the highest-security prison in the Maoist-hit state, and were followed out by nearly 200 other prisoners.
Dantewada, about 450km south of state capital Raipur, is one of the Maoists’ strongest hubs in the country and the CPI (Maoist) top leadership is believed to be hiding in the area.
The first move was made around 4.45pm by a Maoist prisoner named Sudhir Kumar, who took advantage of the general laxity in security during dinner, said R.K. Vij, inspector-general, Bastar.
Kumar bent down as if to pick up his thali (plate) but suddenly snatched the lone sentry’s rifle. A group of Maoists then raided the armoury, grabbed the weapons and rushed towards the main gate, guns blazing.
They broke the gate open, fired at a guard and disappeared into the forests, carrying half-a-dozen .303 rifles. They left behind two injured guards, a bleeding non-Maoist inmate, and empty plates signifying the rebels had made sure they finished what could be their last meal for some time.
“It was all over within 15 minutes. Security personnel from Dantewada (about 5km from the jail premises) had reached by 5pm,” Vij said, adding 299 of the jail’s 373 inmates had fled.
At 5pm, the jail’s security would anyway have been taken over by a special armed police contingent.
Sources said that according to the jail manual, 16 sentries should guard the prison but just five were assigned for the task today. Only the two injured guards were found inside the premises after the jailbreak, and there’s suspicion the other three never turned up for duty.
The state government has suspended the jailor and five others, and ordered a magisterial inquiry. Embarrassed senior officers tonight spoke of a “well-planned conspiracy”.
The jailbreak is the Maoists’ biggest since November 2005, when 1,000 guerrillas held Bihar’s Jehanabad town hostage, freed nearly 400 jailed comrades and kidnapped two dozen Ranbir Sena prisoners.
The Naxalites later almost took over an Orissa town, R. Udaygiri, while freeing 40 prisoners in March last year. Today’s operation, however, did not involve a siege by outsiders.
“We have scattered the Maoist prisoners among the various district jails in Jagdalpur, Bijapur and Dantewada; but with so many Maoists being arrested, such division is difficult,” an official said.
He added that the need to present the prisoners frequently before trial courts was an obstacle to shifting them to faraway districts.
Vij said no hardcore Maoists were detained in the jail — a claim questioned by other sources who insisted that at least 15 inmates fitted that description. “A senior Maoist commander identified as Sunil is the suspected mastermind,” an official said.
Sources quoting eyewitness said the prisoners had fled towards Faraspal. The Dantewada-Faraspal stretch is completely under rebel control.