The CPI(Maoist) conducts its TCOC against security personnel from March to June every year, trying to inflict maximum damage during this period.
The troopers were travelling from Kistaram to Palodi camp in Sukma when they came under attack. Sukma SP Abhishek Meena had passed by the spot of the attack just before it happened, although it isn’t clear whether he was the target.
According to CRPF chief RR Bhatnagar, who has reached Chhattisgarh to take stock of the situation, the SP was to visit the forward camp at Palodi. “Around half a dozen advance parties of the CRPF’s CoBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action) units on foot and motorcycle had gone ahead; Maoists tried to ambush some of these parties but they ran away after return of fire at around 8am,” he said.
The SP’s convoy, which passed by the same area at 12.30pm, included two Mine Protected Vehicles or MPVs. The first passed unscathed; the second, carrying the troopers, was attacked. “The MPV that was carrying troopers coming back from leave was targeted at 12.30pm with a powerful landmine blast which ripped the vehicle apart,” said Bhatnagar.
“The quantity of explosives used in the blast and whether the troopers travelling in the MPV had tied seat belts, which could have helped them to withstand the impact of blast, is a matter of investigation,” added Bhatnagar.
CRPF officials admit the MPV’s usefulness is limited in Maoist areas where insurgents use improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) with explosives up to 70-80 kg.
“We have around 300 MPVs deployed in Maoists areas, Jammu and Kashmir and North-Eastern states. Most of them are manufactured at the Jabalpur ordinance factory. Older MPVs could withstand blasts of IEDs up to 20kg explosives but the newer lot has a threshold limit of withstanding blasts of IEDs up to 40kg. The MPV that was targeted today was from the newer lot,” said a CRPF official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Former CRPF chief K Durga Prasad, who has considerable experience of dealing with Maoists, says the MPVs have certain disadvantages: they can be spotted from afar and they are heavy and slow.
“The best way to travel in Maoist areas is by foot,” said Prasad.
CRPF officials said the distance between Kistaram and Palodi camps is around five kms.
“But since there was tight security due to the visit of SP, the troopers coming from leave were sent with the same convoy in an MPV,” said the CRPF official quoted above.
The Chhattisgarh police remained tightlipped on how the Maoists managed to inflict such casualties despite security forces having their guard up in view of the TCOC.
Union home minister Rajnath Singh expressed his condolences to the families of the slain troopers. “Today’s IED blast in Sukma Chhattisgarh is deeply distressing. I bow to each and every security personnel who attained martyrdom while serving the nation,” he tweeted.
Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh condemned the “cowardly and shameful” attack and said Maoists were afraid development work in Bastar region (which includes Sukma) would put an end to their activities.
Sukma in south Chhattisgarh, about 480km from state capital Raipur, is prone to attacks by insurgents and has seen decades of bloody conflict between security forces and Left-wing extremists.
On March 11, 2017, suspected Maoists ambushed a CRPF road-opening team and killed 12 troopers in Sukma. A month later, the rebels killed 24 CRPF troopers near Burkapal in the district.
An intelligence official tracking left-wing extremism in Chhattisgarh said recent joint operations of the state police in collaboration with their Telangana counterparts have rattled Maoist leaders. “They carried out this attack to avenge death of the cadre in those encounters,” the official added, asking not to be named.
On March 2, commando force Greyhounds killed 10 Maoists in an encounter in the forests of Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district, bordering Telangana. A Greyhound constable also died in the encounter.