Raipur/Sukma, April 24 (IANS) In one of the deadliest attacks, 300 to 400 heavily armed Maoists, women included, ambushed a CRPF contingent in a forested patch in Chhattisgarh on Monday, killing 25 troopers and escaping with their AK-47 assault rifles.
Six Central Reserve Police Force personnel were airlifted to Raipur in critical condition. An injured trooper, Sheikh Mohammed, claimed that the subsequent gun battle lasted about three hours.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the deadly ambush on the 74th Battalion at a place between Burkapal and Chintagufa in Sukma district as "cowardly and deplorable" and said the deaths won't go in vain.
The CRPF said the ambush began at 12.30 p.m. Troopers who survived the horror said the attackers used hand grenades, automatic rifles and rocket launchers as they launched the attack "from all sides".
"The troopers replied in a befitting manner but taking geographical position to their advantage, the Maoists succeeded in inflicting loss to the CRPF," a CRPF statement said. "A considerable number of Maoists are believed to have been eliminated."
One account said local tribes passed on vital real-time inputs on the movement of CRPF men to the Maoists.
"It's a major tragedy. We will hit back with full intensity," Vivekanand, the Inspector General of Police of Bastar region, said in Sukma after returning from the site of carnage.
The dead included an Inspector, a Sub-Inspector, three Assistant Sub-Inspectors, six Head Constables and 14 Constables.
Chief Minister Raman Singh flew back from New Delhi and presided over an emergency meeting with top officials to re-strategize moves against the Maoists who have shown signs of revival in recent months.
"The entire Chhattisgarh is pained by the CRPF men's killing," a visibly shocked Raman Singh said after landing in Raipur. "The Maoists are feeling a lot of heat in Sukma with increased presence of security forces."
CRPF officials initially said 11 troopers were killed before scaling up the figure to 26. Eventually, the paramilitary force said it lost 25 men.
The 99-member CRPF patrol was on foot on the interior road, providing security to road construction activity, when it came under sudden attack.
Once the fighting died down, Air Force helicopters evacuated the wounded to Raipur hospitals.
Security forces later launched a major search operation to track down the Maoists.
This was the worst attack by Maoists in Chhattisgarh since 2010 when 76 CRPF troopers were killed. Twelve CRPF men were killed in a similar Maoist attack in Sukma early this year.
Modi saluted the CRPF.
"We are proud of the valour of our CRPF personnel. The sacrifice of the martyrs will not go in vain," he tweeted. "Condolences to their families. May those injured in (the) attack recover at the earliest."
Home Minister Rajnath Singh said he was "extremely pained" by the killings and offered tributes to the dead and condolences to their families.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi and party Vice President Rahul Gandhi also condemned the killings.
"The sacrifice of brave men is a big loss to the nation. Such attacks will never deter our fight against extremism," Sonia Gandhi tweeted.
Former Home Secretary R.K. Singh blamed the massacre on "complete intelligence failure on the ground level".
Raman Singh said it was premature to comment on intelligence failure. He, however, vowed to unleash a full-blown offensive against Maoists in the entire Bastar region, mainly in Sukma district.
He urged security personnel in Bastar to be more cautious and alert as the Maoists could engineer more such attacks in a bid to retain their hold over the sprawling area.
Maoists aligned to the outlawed Communist Party of India-Maoist have been active in Chhattisgarh's tribal-dominated interiors for decades, running a virtual parallel state.