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Suspected Maoist attack kills 15 police commandos, driver in Indian state of Maharashtra

Indian railway police force commandos stand guard at the Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus railway station in Mumbai on February 28, 2019. (Photo by AFP)

Maoist rebels have attacked a van carrying police commandos in the insurgents’ stronghold in western India and killed 15 officers and their driver in the western state of Maharashtra, local police officials say.  

"Maoists attacked a team of commandos travelling in a private vehicle to inspect an earlier attack. So far 16 men have died," media outlets quoted an unnamed official at police headquarters in the state of Maharashtra as saying.

"More teams have been sent to site for rescue and combat operations," added the officer.

 Sharad Shelar, a second police officer said that the casualties were caused as rebels triggered a land mine blast in the forested Gadchiroli area in Maharashtra state as the vehicle was passing through. 

Police have blamed the blast on Naxal militants known to be active in the region.

Local media reports said the rebels first struck early Wednesday by burning more than 20 vehicles of a road construction company. They hid in the forest and targeted police commandos when they came searching for them.

They routinely attack government troops and officials and have been called India’s greatest internal security threat.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a Twitter post on Wednesday swiftly condemned the latest attack on police commandos.

"Strongly condemn the despicable attack on our security personnel in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra. I salute all the brave personnel," Modi wrote, adding, “Their sacrifices will never be forgotten. My thoughts & solidarity are with the bereaved families. The perpetrators of such violence will not be spared."

Home Minister Rajnath Singh called the attack "an act of cowardice and desperation".

"We are extremely proud of the valour of our police personnel," he said. "Their supreme sacrifice while serving the nation will not go in vain."

S. Mungantwar, Maharashtra state minister said the ambush was a desperate attack by the rebels because authorities had succeeded in holding peaceful voting for national elections in the area last month. The rebels had asked people to boycott the polls.

Suspected Maoists have also struck during India's elections, which are currently ongoing. India's nationwide election began on April 11 and runs until May 19.

On April 18, a polling supervisor was gunned down by alleged Maoist militants in the eastern state of Odisha. The supervisor, Sanjukta Digal, was leading a team to a polling station in the Kandhamal district on the eve of the second phase of voting in the state. In another incident in the same district, Maoists approached a vehicle heading towards a polling center and forced officials to disembark before setting fire to it.

Last weekend, at least two constables were killed after rebels opened fire on Indian police in the central state of Chhattisgarh. A roadside bomb attack on a political convoy in early April killed five people in the same troubled state.

In April 2017, at least 25 police officers were killed when hundreds of suspected Maoist rebels attacked a convoy in central India.

According to India's Ministry of Home Affairs, 90 districts across 11 states are currently affected by some form of Naxal or Maoist militancy. The Maoists are believed to be present in at least 20 Indian states but are most active in Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand and Maharashtra.

Maoist rebels accuse the Indian state of plundering the mineral-rich and underdeveloped east and central regions of the country at the expense of the poor and landless, among whom they retain some support.

Indian forces have been fighting Maoists rebels for decades in several areas, in an insurgency that has killed tens of thousands.

Indian Maoist  groups have been active in the country since the 1960s, but the new wave of insurgency did not begin until the early 2000s.

More than 2,100 civilians in India have been killed in the Maoist insurgency since 2010.

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