India’s government has reacted with outrage to an audacious attack by about 200 suspected Maoist rebels who killed 24 people by setting off a bomb and firing on a convoy carrying ruling party leaders and members in an insurgency-ridden state.
Saturday’s ambush, which targeted Congress party politicians returning from a campaign event with the area’s indigenous tribal community, appeared to be a warning to officials to stay away from the rebels’ main base of support.
Prime minister Manmohan Singh and party president Sonia Gandhi visited some of the 37 people who were injured in the attack in a hospital yesterday in the Chhattisgarh state capital and said the government would take firm action against the perpetrators.
“We are devastated,” said Gandhi, who denounced what she called a “dastardly attack” on the country’s democratic values.
Rajnath Singh, president of the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, said the country should unite in its fight against the Maoist insurgency.
The convoy was attacked in a densely forested area about 200 miles south of Raipur, Chhattisgarh’s capital, as the Congress members were returning from a party rally. Four state party leaders and eight police officers were among the 24 people killed. Other victims were party supporters.
Police identified one of those dead as Mahendra Karma, a Congress party leader in Chhattisgarh who founded a local militia, the Salwa Judum, to combat the Maoist rebels. The anti-rebel militia had to be reined in after it was accused of atrocities against tribals – indigenous people at the bottom of India’s rigid social ladder.
The dead also included state Congress party chief Nand Kumar Patel and his son. The injured included former federal minister Vidya Charan Shukla, 83, police said.
The Press Trust of India news agency said the attackers blocked the road by felling trees, forcing the convoy to halt. Vij said the suspected rebels triggered a land mine that blew up one of the cars. The attackers then fired at the Congress party leaders and their supporters before fleeing.
Congress is the main opposition party in the state. It has stepped up political activities, trying to win the support of tribal people, ahead of state elections scheduled to be held by December. The rebels, known as “Naxalites”, have been fighting the central government for more than four decades, demanding land and jobs for tenant farmers and the poor.