The rebels meticulously planned the ambush over the past few weeks

With security forces deviating from the standard operating procedure (SOP), the Maoists took advantage of the lapse in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district, meticulously planning, over the past few weeks, Tuesday’s attack that killed 16 police personnel.

Preliminary investigation suggests that the Maoists did thorough reconnaissance and set up light machine guns on either side of the road in the Darbha Ghat area. As a road-opening party comprised of joint forces, on its way there from the Tongpal police station from the south, reached Tahakwada on National Highway 30, the rebels opened fire. Also, they had mined the area. No one was, however, killed in a landmine explosion, officials said.

Maoists launch “deliberate” or planned ambushes and “mobile” or unplanned ambushes, as the situation warrants. Almost any big attack, as was Tuesday’s, is a planned strike. As the rebels surrounded the forces and started firing, the first platoon, with some 20 personnel, got ambushed but the second platoon could not reach it because of the hostile terrain and the presence of a small nullah in between, a senior State police officer said.

The attack highlights one factor — intensified security, coupled with repression of locals, is no solution to the Maoist problem. State police officials agree that “excessive deployment” may have triggered the attack.

In the past few years, five camps of the joint forces were set up in the Darbha area. A sixth one is coming up at Keshlur. Officials now feel the increased security presence has restricted the movements of the rebels. They often use Darbha-Tongpal, located within a few kilometres west of the Orissa border, as a corridor to enter and leave Chhattisgarh. Since their movements were restricted, they might have retaliated, a senior officer said.

A section of officers blamed the collapse of the command structure for the increasing number of attacks on the police. The State went without a Director-General of Police for several weeks following the government’s decision to bypass seniormost officers and Naxal expert Giridhari Nayak, to appoint a relatively junior officer to the post. The morale of the forces has taken a beating, a senior officer told The Hindu.

The local people say that after Tuesday’s attack, the police have been harassing them. At Elengnarh, Koleng and adjacent villages, innocent civilians are being picked up randomly to squeeze out information. It is natural that a section of these people will join the rebels simply out of panic, said the secretary of a local gram panchayat on condition of anonymity. Even last Saturday, four persons were picked up from Chandmeta and their family is yet to be informed of their whereabouts, he said.

Moreover, every March, the rebels start their tactical counter-offensive campaign to push the police out of their base areas and inflict damage. Maoist military commanders earlier told The Hindu that if they did not “engage” the forces between March and June, the rebels would come under attack, with the green forest cover disappearing from winter till the onset of monsoon.