March 13, 2017 3:58:16 am
Leaves have fallen, the evidence nearly hidden. Under the trees, 50 m apart, are holes the size of tiffin carriers, and next to each upturned earth. Near a small embankment is a golden bullet shell. Fifty metres away, is an arrow, a small explosive at its tip. Twenty-four hours after the worst Maoist attack in two years, these tell the story of an ambush that left 12 CRPF personnel dead, and 2 others injured.
At 9 am Saturday, a team of 110 men from Battalion 219 of CRPF stationed at Bhejji, left their camp. The road opening party had two objectives. The first was to provide security to the road being built from Injeram on NH-30 and Bhejji, the last outpost in this sensitive zone in Sukma. The other was to provide a sense of security. For, Saturday is the day of the Bhejji haat, when traders from Sukma, Konta and Errabor travel in pickups on the under-construction road to set up market for a day.
But this Saturday was different.
The CRPF personnel flanked out off the road and walked towards Kottacheru. A kilometre-and-a-half away from the camp, the first gunfire was heard on the left side. “It was meant to be a distraction. The left flank came towards the road and those on the right flank began to look left. At this point, the Maoists opened fire on the right flank,” a CRPF personnel, who was part of the operation, told The Indian Express.
Senior police officials said each flank is divided into three sections of about 12-15 personnel each. Between each section is a gap of a few hundred metres to ensure that there are no mass casualties in case of an ambush.
IGP P Sundar Raj, who was in Bhejji Sunday, said the Maoists opened fire on the whole of the right flank. “But they concentrated on the first section. All the dead were from the first section. Because the entire flank came under fire, they had to stay in their positions and in those circumstances it is difficult to know what is happening with the first section. Also, the inspector-in-charge of the first section, who had the communication device, was among the first to fall. It was only when our rescue team from Kottacheru camp approached, the Maoists fled. We returned fire and it is probable that there was damage on their part,” he said.
But in the kill zone, as the investigators are calling it, it wasn’t just gunfire that the first section faced. As they came under gunfire, each soldier attempted to take cover behind a tree. But most trees had been boobytrapped with tiffin bombs, weighing between 2-3 kg. These were triggered with wires by Maoists sitting 300-400 m away. Six such IEDs exploded. In the 24 hours since, seven others have been recovered and defused. Modified arrows have also been found with explosives at tips. The tip is silver, hiding a small detonator, codex wire, and put together with ammonium nitrate.
“These are meant to explode on impact and make a massive noise, capable of causing some injuries, and disorienting troops. Most didn’t come off, but they added to the atmosphere,” a CRPF officer said. The IG confirmed that the tiffin bombs had shrapnel inside, and those killed suffered both IED-related injuries and gunshot wounds.
Amid questions on how such an ambush could occur within a few kilometres of two camps, officials said road opening parties have the most dangerous assignment in Bastar now. “When you go out on an operation, you are in control of the narrative. But the options available to a road opening party are limited. If work is happening, and there is a haat, there is little room for manoeuvre. The troops will have to be near the road, and also check the surroundings. But we will not be deterred, and will continue with our mission,” Sunder Raj said.
While probe into which Maoist unit was behind the attack is underway, officials said the 40 sq km area around Bhejji is dominated by military company number one, headed by Maoist commander Hidma.
Sources said Sonu, another Maoist commander, may also have been present. “It is hard to tell exactly how many Maoists were there. A military company has about 170 members. Add to this jan militia members, the numbers could have been over 250,” Sunder Raj said.
But CRPF officials are clear about why the Maoists chose that area. “This is considered their stronghold. That weakens if a road is built. At least half of the 18-km road has been built, and they were desperate,” an official said.
In and around Bhejji Sunday, there was a quiet, broken only by visits of senior officers, MHA’s internal security advisor K Vijay Kumar among them. At the village, nobody spoke. At the camp, the faces were sombre, voices hushed. One personnel said, his voice shaking, “Do you know that even after they fell to the ground injured, they fought to hold on to their weapons? Twelve personnel died Sunday. Has anybody really taken notice?”
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