Defending an Indian counterinsurgency operation which allegedly killed rebel operatives but also took civilian lives, Chhattisgarh's chief minister accuses the Maoists of using women and children as human shields.
Maoist insurgents have resorted to using civilians as human shields, India's home minister asserted this week as security forces faced criticism over casualties in a June 27th-28th action against the rebels.
Acting on a tip, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Chhattisgarh state police carried out a three-pronged attack in the dense forests of Basaguda and Jagargunda, killing nineteen people. According to the police, three top Maoist leaders, going by the names Mahesh, Somulu and Nagesh, were gunned down during the operation.
But concerns about civilian loss of life surfaced immediately after the encounter, with local people saying many of those slain were not Naxals, as the Maost insurgents are locally known, but had been driven by the militants into the forest, where they were caught up in the raid.
On Wednesday (July 4th) Home Minister P. Chidambaram expressed deep regret that innocent victims may have been drawn into the violence.
"If any girl, or boy or man or woman not involved with the Maoists at all has been killed, I can only be deeply sorry," The Times of India quoted him as saying.
Speaking to Khabar South Asia, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh said the militants must bear the responsibility for putting the lives of civilians in danger.
"The Maoists have been using the villagers as 'human shields', he said."Even if innocent villagers have been killed during the recent anti-Maoist operations, the rebels should take the responsibility for it."
India's ruling Congress party has raised questions about the operation, saying a fact-finding team headed by a senior tribal state legislator, Kawasi Lakhma, determined that seven minors aged 15 or below were killed.
Nand Kumar Patel, president of the party's Chhattisgarh unit, formed the 12-member panel in order to investigate what he described as "indiscriminate firing" by CRPF personnel.
"We have proof that several women and children were also killed in the gun battle between the Maoists and security forces," Patel said.
Police say they were fired upon during the operation, proving that militants were in the forest. Six injured CRPF jawans (soldiers), two of them in critical condition, are recuperating in a hospital in Raipur, the state capital.
"We did not resort to the firing, but it was initiated from the other side," CRPF Director-General Vijay Kumar said in press release. "In fact, we needed to protect ourselves following so many were wounded in open fire."
"There were two instances when our jawans retreated when they saw women as well as children in the forefront," the statement said.
Rajat Kumar, the district collector for Bijapur, said that the wounds suffered by security personnel during the raid show that the targets were not mere civilians.
"How is it possible for the security forces to sustain bullet and mortar injuries? It is possible that [the villagers] were members of the people's army, whom the Maoists were employing as human shield during such encounters," he said.
According to Kumar, they have specific information that large numbers of armed Maoists cadres were assembling inside the Basaguda and Jagargunda forests for the last few days with a view to launching a major attack on security forces deployed in the area.
"Timely action by our forces have averted a major disaster like the one in April 2010 when 75 CRPF personnel were mowed down by the Maoists at a place near Chintalnar in Dantewada," he said.
The operation was an attempt to head off anticipated violence during the Saheed Saptah, or "Martyr's Week", called by the Naxals for the first week of July, according to The Times of India.