The air is thick with rhythmic wailing and smoke from funeral pyres on the barren fields of Sarkeguda, Kotteguda and Rajapetta in the Kotteguda panchayat of Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district.

“The funerals are being conducted one by one as there aren’t enough men to help out with so many bodies,” said Sangam Ravi, a resident. “Some have to be buried, but who will dig all the graves? Some bodies must be burnt, but then you need to collect the wood.”

A day after the Chhattisgarh police claimed to have killed 20 Maoists in an encounter in Bijapur, villagers have offered a sharply divergent description of the incident, claiming that the security forces fired at a peaceful gathering of villagers, killing 20 of them, including five children aged 12-15, and sexually assaulted at least four teenaged girls during the encounter.

“There were no Maoists present at the village that night,” said Madkam Ganpat of Rajpetta. “We had gathered to discuss the upcoming seed festival, which is held every year before sowing begins.” He said the meeting continued for several hours, when the participants were suddenly surrounded by a large contingent of the security forces.

“The forces immediately opened fire, all of us tried to run away but many were shot in the legs, back and chest,” he said. Kaka Saraswati was among those killed in the ensuing confusion. “She was only 12 years old,” said her mother Kaka Sinakka.

Several of the bodies seen by this correspondent had bullet wounds in the torso and the neck. Sabka Mitu, 17, was killed when his throat was slit by a sharp object. Several bodies also had lacerations from what could have been a knife or an axe.

Mr. Ganpat’s account was corroborated by a number of villagers who insisted that no Maoists were present at the meeting, but none could explain how six policemen were injured. “The forces had encircled us,” said Mr. Ganpat. “Maybe, they accidently shot each other.”

The firing lasted several minutes, the villagers said, after which the forces radioed for a tractor that took away a number of bodies. “The force then camped in the village and dragged me into the fields,” Devi (name changed), a 14-year-old girl, said in an interview. “They threw me on the ground, beat me, kicked me, tore my clothes and kept threatening to rape me.” She said three other girls were similarly molested.

“The force remained on the fields till the next morning,” said Irpa Raju. “My son Ramesh stepped out of the house to go to the toilet when he was shot by a policeman. Ramesh ran to the house, shouting ‘Ayo, Ayo [Mother, Mother,]’ but the force followed him and killed him in our house, in front of my eyes.” Raju also accused the policemen of breaking open the family treasure chest and stealing Rs.5,000.

While the villagers’ accounts seem internally consistent, this correspondent spotted at least seven uniformed Maoists on patrol at Rajapetta on Saturday morning, suggesting that the Maoists do frequent the village. Villagers, seeking anonymity, said the Maoists were occasionally called for village meetings to discuss routine matters such as festivals, sowing, ploughing and harvest.

A few hours into the visit of this correspondent, a young man brought a hand-written note signed by the South Bastar Divisional Committee of the CPI (Maoist). It described the incident as a “completely fake encounter” and claimed that all the victims were innocent tribals.

“The forces had received information that several senior Maoists were gathering in a village called Silger, about 16 km from the CRPF camp at Basaguda. Three km into their patrol, the troopers literally barged into a Maoist village meeting at Kottaguda,” said a senior police officer. “We were taken by surprise, and five of our men were injured right away.”

The source said several of the dead were “probably” civilians.

“We exercised the maximum restraint and fired in self-defence. We were conscious of operating in a village area,” claimed a trooper who participated in the operation. “We did not use any area-weapons such as grenades or rocket launchers. If we really wanted to, we could have razed the entire village.”