Nine CRPF personnel were killed and two critically injured Tuesday after Maoists triggered a powerful improvised explosive device (IED) under a Mine Protected Vehicle (MPV) in the Kistaram area of Sukma. Personnel traveling in the vehicle were returning from leave to their camp in Palodi – the forward-most camp in the Kistaram axis – considered an area where Maoists have almost complete control and is cut off from the rest of the state.
Senior police officers told The Indian Express that Maoist movement was reported in the Kistaram axis on Tuesday morning when they exchanged fire with the CRPF’s Cobra 208 battalion at around 8 am. “There was an exchange of fire, and we believe there may have been some damage to the Maoists. Then at about 12:30 in the afternoon, the Maoists targeted an MPV between Kistaram and Palodi, which left nine personnel dead and two injured,” said DM Awasthi, Special DG, Anti-Naxal Operations, Chhattisgarh.
Abhishek Meena, Superintendent of Police, Sukma had also travelled to Palodi just over an hour before the blast and was in the Palodi camp when the IED was triggered. “After the morning encounter with Maoists, our jawans had returned to camp by 11 am. At around noon, jawans who had come back from leave started for Palodi from Kistaram in an MPV. Road opening had been carried out only an hour ago as SP Sukma was visiting Palodi,” CRPF DG RR Bhatnagar said. Police sources said Meena had traveled to Palodi, intending to go onwards to Potakpalli where a new camp is planned in the next few months.
Soon after the attack, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “The nation stands shoulder to shoulder with them in this hour of grief,” while Home Minister Rajnath Singh directed Bhatnagar to immediately rush to Chhattisgarh.
India salutes the brave @crpfindia personnel who were martyred in the attack in Sukma, Chhattisgarh.
My thoughts are with the families and friends of the brave martyrs. The nation stands shoulder to shoulder with them in this hour of grief.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) March 13, 2018
Preliminary investigations have led police to concur that the IED that caused the blast had significant explosives – upwards of 20 kilograms. “Only either very high-quality explosive or in heavy weightage can cause this damage to an anti-landmine vehicle that can ordinarily withstand these blasts,” Awasthi said.
This is not the first time Maoists have targeted an anti-landmine vehicle. In April 2015 five STF jawans were killed and seven injured in the Kirandul area of Dantewada.
While the body of the MPV remained mostly intact, its wheelbase was ripped apart, officials said, leading them to believe that the vehicle was launched in the air, and then flipped over. “If you look at the state of the bodies, it is not that they have been blown apart. The injuries are from wounds to the head, or in some cases what looks like heavy internal bleeding from impact inside the vehicle. For now, the injured have been flown to Raipur and are in intensive care,” a senior CRPF officer in Sukma said.
Sukma is perhaps the most violent left-wing extremism hit district in the country, but even within its boundaries, Kistaram is the most sensitive of zones, sources said. On the southernmost tip of Chhattisgarh and Bastar, to this day, while Kistaram has both a Chhattisgarh Police camp which houses STF and DRG jawans, and a CRPF camp, there is very little access by road from Chhattisgarh, and rations are primarily supplied through choppers.
“The road that even the forces use is through Telangana, via Bhadrachalam, and not through Chhattisgarh, because the Kistaram Chintalnar axis is very dangerous for forces,” a senior officer said. Even Palodi, which is 5.5 km from Kistaram and is the last camp in that forward area was only opened on November 26, 2017.
The area of Kistaram bordering Telangana is important for movement of the top Maoist leadership of the Danda Karanya special zonal committee of the CPI (Maoist) which includes members from Telangana, Andhra, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, added officials. It is also considered the primary operational area of the PLGA battalion number 1, with dreaded Maoist commander Hidma at its helm, and deputy commanders Sonu and Situ.
Citing intelligence reports, senior Home Ministry officials suspect the same battalion was behind Tuesday’s attack on the directions from Sonu and Hidma. Both were earlier suspected to have planned the ambush on CRPF jawans near Bhejji in Sukma last year, they said.
According to Awasthi, Tuesday’s attack was in response to the forces entering areas that had thus far been untouched. “We have had encounters in Tondamarka and Salatong, which were considered completely no-go areas. Palodi was opened four months ago, and this was a sign of our intent. We will still move forward to Potakpalli, and this is what the Maoists are afraid of,” he said.
Speaking to The Indian Express, special advisor to MHA on left-wing extremism K Vijay Kumar said, “Laying of IEDs does not require a big team. We suspect that a small team could have triggered the IED. We will maintain our forward movement. The Naxals have taken a serious hit in the recent past and it is clear that the two camps near Kistaram (Palodi and Potakpalli) are proving to be of great discomfort to them.”
Central intelligence agencies have cautioned the state administration and central forces deployed for anti-Naxal operations regarding more attacks in the coming days as Maoist plans to extend offensive operations.
In December, Maoists had set ablaze 13 vehicles on this very short stretch between Kistaram and Palodi – 11 of these vehicles were involved in road construction – and before that blew up a bridge in Dharampenta.
Chief Minister Raman Singh Tuesday held an emergency meeting of senior officers and condemned the attack. He said he stood with the families of the jawans, and that this was a sign of the Maoists’ desperation. The Opposition, however, said that the continuing deaths were indicative of a failed policy on the internal security front.