A trail of blood meanders across a freshly turned field before congealing into a dark pool amid grenade fragments and a steel lunchbox.

A day after suspected fighters of the CPI (Maoist) killed 27 Central Reserve Police Force personnel in an ambush in Chhattisgarh's Narayanpur district, the debris littered across the battle site speaks of a prolonged and bloody encounter.

Police sources said the CRPF and Maoists exchanged fire for nearly three hours on Tuesday afternoon before the rebels retreated. The following account is based on interviews with intelligence sources in the police and the CRPF, and evidence gathered from the site.

At 5 a.m. Tuesday, 59 soldiers of the 39th Battalion of the CRPF and one Special Police Officer of the Chhattisgarh Police left their camp at Dhaudai, nearly 35 km. from the district headquarters of Narayanpur. The company was directed to secure a seven-km. stretch of road to allow for “logistical movements.”

“The road-opening operation was called off by 12.30 p.m.,” said a source. “The soldiers were then asked to return to the camp.”

By 1.30 p.m., the company crossed a treacherous hilly section, known as the Jhardi Ghatti, and was approaching a dry riverbed sited approximately four km. from its camp.

“We were walking along the sides of the road, each man 20 paces behind the other, when we suddenly heard a burst of fire from behind us,” said a survivor at the Dhaudai camp, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I hit the ground and immediately began to crawl to safety.”

While 33 soldiers escaped, the remaining 27 found themselves trapped in a three-way ambush.

“The Maoists emerged from the nalla [riverbed] and surrounded those left behind,” the survivor said.

“We found 18 bodies on a field about 50 metres from the road,” said a policeman who was part of the reinforcements.

It is surmised that about 100 Maoists took part in the ambush; a majority of whom hid themselves along the steep banks of the riverbed. On seeing the approaching party, the Maoists opened fire and forced a section of the CRPF company into a 150-sq.m. open field.

The large extent of bloodstains along the low, foot-high, earthen boundaries of one particular field suggests that the 18 isolated soldiers went into a huddle and were quickly surrounded by the Maoists. Fragments and shrapnel recovered from the field indicate that the Maoists lobbed grenades at the besieged personnel, before overrunning them and killing them at close quarters.

“At least one survivor has a severe skull injury caused by a rifle butt,” a senior intelligence officer said, lending credence to the theory that the fighting occurred at close quarters. “QuikClot field medical kits recovered from the site indicate that the encounter continued for well over 20 minutes as the soldiers had time to try to stem bleeding from their wounds in the middle of the battle.”

Four more bodies were found dispersed through the forests. This meant the Maoists must have combed through the forests to hunt down any survivor, the sources said.

“We lost wireless contact with the CRPF party at 2.45 p.m.,” said a source, implying that the wireless operators were probably killed soon after. The encounter finally ended when reinforcements arrived at the spot at 4.30 p.m. The wireless sets are missing, as are at least 20 INSAS and SLR rifles and two automatic Kalashnikovs.