Raipur (Chhattisgarh): In the deadliest attack ever by Naxals in the country, at least 17 people, including senior Congress leader Mahendra Karma, were killed and former union minister V.C. Shukla and 19 others injured when heavily-armed Maoists ambushed a convoy of party leaders inside a dense forest in Chhattisgarh's Bastar district.
The Maoists also kidnapped PCC chief Nand Kumar Patel and his son Dinesh after attacking the convoy of Congress leaders in Darba Gati Valley near Jagdalpur, headquarters town of Bastar district, police said.
Joint Secretary (Naxal management) in Union Home Ministry M.A. Ganpathy told PTI in New Delhi that 17 people were killed and around 20 injured in the attack.
Most of the dead and injured were Congress leaders and workers, he said adding four to five of those killed in the attack were Personal Security Officers of the Congress leaders.
Besides Karma, former Congress MP Gopal Madhavan and ex-MLA from Rajnandgaon Udya Mudaliyar were also shot dead and prominent woman tribal leader Phulo Devi Netam, Bastar, wounded by the Maoists who attacked the convoy at around 1730 hours when they were returning from the party's 'Parivartan' rally.
Karma, a former Home Minister and founder of 'Salwa Judum' (anti-Naxal operation by vigilante groups), was surrounded by about 100 to 150 Maoists who peppered his body with bullets. The Maoists had put up road blocks by felling trees before triggering a landmine blast that hit one of the vehicles in the convoy and opening fire, police sources said.
After carrying out the attack, the ultras set nearby trees on fire.
The Centre rushed more than 600 CRPF personnel, including elite CoBRA anti-Maoist commandos, to sanitise and take control of the Naxal attack site in Chhattisgarh. The Centre has mobilised the CRPF personnel to not only take control of the area but also launch search and rescue operations as it is suspected that some people may be present in nearby jungles.
Local Congress leader Rajiv Narang is also among the injured. 84-year-old V.C. Shukla underwent an operation in Jagdalpur hospital for the three bullets he had received in the attack to be taken out of his body.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi said in New Delhi that Shukla was hit in his stomach. Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh said the condition of Shukla was stated to be stable.
Mahendra Karma had survived deadly attacks by Maoists against him earlier - Video grab/YouTube
Karma, a former Home Minister of the state, was a guiding force behind 'Salwa Judum' (anti-Naxal operation by vigilante groups).
At least ten security personnel, all of them personnel security officers (PSOs) of Congress leaders were also gunned down by the Naxals. Reports received from Congress leaders, who escaped the attack said at least two dozen Congress leaders have been injured in the attack. The convoy comprised 25 vehicles carrying around 200 Congress leaders and workers.
Naxals first triggered a blast
Naxals ambushed the convoy of Congress leader at Jiram under Darbha police station in Bastar district, first triggering a blast and then opening indiscriminate fire on the vehicles of the Congress leaders.
The PSOs of the Congress leaders tried to defend them by opening fire on the ultras. Naxals then took a pause for sometime till the PSOs ran out of their ammunitions and then asked all the Congress leaders to surrender before them. The ultras, however, started firing indiscriminately when the Congress leaders emerged out of their vehicles.
Senior Congress leader of Dantewada district Avedesh Gautam, who was in the convoy, told this newspaper on phone from the attack site that the Naxals looked out for Mahendra Karma and brutally killed him after identifying him.
"Karma’s PSO retaliated by opening fire on them. He however ran out of ammunitions and apologized to Karma for not being able to protect him. He was then shot dead by ultras."
Karma stepped out his vehicle after the guard was dead and surrendered himself before the Naxals, who then asked the Congress leaders gathered to identify the former minister.
"Once identified, the ultras sprayed him with bullets with a vengeance and then hit his face with rifle butts repeatedly till he died”, Gautam said. He added that V.C. Shukla was lying unattended at the attack site for around three hours before a local TV news channel rescued him.
Karma, whose 23 kin were killed by Naxals in the past four years, was in the hit list of the Naxals.
Former Union Minister Vidya Charan Shukla, who was injured in the Naxal attack - PTI/File photo
Other prominent party leaders, who remained untraced till the last reports poured in here, included Congress MLA T.S.Singh Deo. Naxals had earlier blocked the route from both sides of Sukma and Jagdalpur by felling trees to prevent forces from reaching the spot.
Unconfirmed reports said around ten Congress leaders may have been killed in the Naxal attack.
Meanwhile, chief minister Raman Singh rushed to Raipur after cancelling his Vikas Yatra at Balod Bazar, nearly 70 km from here, and closeted himself with senior officers including chief secretary Sunil Kumar and DGP Ramniwas. The meeting continued till late in the night.
PM, Sonia condemn the attack; Ajit Jogi calls for President's Rule
The Maoist attack took place in a dense forest near National Highway 202 connecting Chattisgarh with Bhadrachalam district of adjacent Andhra Pradesh. Opposition Congress' Parivartan Yatra, comprising senior party leaders, had launched Parivartan Yatra on April 12 in the state where Assembly elections are due by year end.
After the incident, PM Manmohan Singh spoke to Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh and asked him whether more central forces were required urgently by Chhattisgarh government. "I appeal to the attackers to release all those who may have been abducted," Manmohan Singh said.
Congress chief Sonia Gandhi termed the Maoist attack on party workers as attack on democratic values. "We are shocked, astounded and pained by the attack on our colleagues in Chhattisgarh," she told mediapersons.
Top officials of the force, deployed for anti-Naxal operations in the state, will visit the encounter site on Sunday, official sources said. The CRPF has also asked all its formations in the state to remain on high alert in the wake of Saturday's deadly attack in south Bastar.
Union Minister of State for Home R.P.N. Singh, who is visiting Chhhattisgarh on Sunday to take stock of the situation in the wake of the Maoist attack, said in New Delhi that 'our top priority is to find the missing PCC chief and his son'.
The Union Home Ministry has sent additional forces to Chhattisgarh to assist the local administration in launching combing operations for rescue of kidnapped persons," Home Ministry sources said.
An air ambulance will be sent to Chhattisgarh Sunday morning to bring back the injured for treatment after Raman Singh spoke to Dr Naresh Trehan, Chairman and Managing Director of Medicity Medanta in Gurgaon.
A three-day state mourning has been declared from and all those who died in the attack will be given a state funeral.
Chhattisgarh Congress media cell president Shailesh Trivedi said it was matter of investigation whether Naxals were involved in the attack. He alleged the state's BJP government did not provide adequate security to Congress' Yatra despite opposition fromNaxals.
"Naxals have opposed both BJP's Vikas Yatra and Congress' Parivartan Yatra. However, the state government provided security only to BJP's Yatra and not to the one organised by Congress. Had it been provided security, today's incident would not have happened," he said.
Former Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi also condemned the Naxal attack on his fellow party leaders and said there is little option but to impose President's Rule in the state. "This is the greatest tragedy that has happened. I request PM Manmohan Singh that there is no remedy and President's Rule must be imposed and we must take on the naxalites head on," Jogi told reporters.
He alleged that 2,000 to 3,000 police personnel had been deployed for the on-going Vikas Yatra of Chief Minister Raman Singh while no security, other than personal security officers, was provided to Congress leaders who were taking out the Parivartan Yatra in the state.