NEW DELHI – Indian Maoist rebels ambushed paramilitary soldiers in a brazen daytime attack Tuesday, killing 20 at a camp in a remote central forest and putting authorities on alert just weeks before national elections.
The dead soldiers were in a group of 44 deployed to the south of Chhattisgarh state to guard road construction workers, police inspector general Mukesh Gupta said. About 200 rebels circled the camp and opened fire, killing 20 troops and wounding others.
Surviving troops engaged the rebels in a three-hour gunbattle, but there were no immediate reports of rebel casualties. Police searched nearby jungles within Sukma district, but the rebels escaped, Gupta said.
It was the biggest rebel attack since May 2013, when they killed 27 people in the same Jiram Ghati valley, including several state politicians from the nationally ruling Congress party. Another attack in the area in 2010 left 76 policemen dead.
The rebels, who say they are inspired by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, have been fighting for more than three decades, staging hit-and-run attacks against Indian authorities as they demand a greater share of wealth from the area's natural resources and more jobs for farmers and the poor.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called them India's greatest internal security threat. Thousands have died in the struggle on both sides.
But little has changed in the struggle, with politicians still debating whether a military operation to flush the rebels out of their jungle hideouts is preferable to offering better economic opportunities to assuage the rebel fury.
After more than three decades, many Indian citizens have grown weary of the conflict being waged sporadically in parts of 20 of India's 28 states.
With the rebels threatening to disrupt next month's elections -- a threat they make each time India votes -- authorities are stepping up security in an effort to prevent election violence.
However, security analysts say the government is not doing enough.
"The force presence in the worst Maoist-hit areas is far too thin. This makes the troops vulnerable to attacks," said Ajai Sahni of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management. "Security forces should be present in large enough numbers to dominate the areas under their watch."
Chhattisgarh's top elected official said he pleaded with New Delhi to send more troops for the elections. He also called a meeting of police and state officials Tuesday to draft a security strategy for the balloting, being held over three days in April.
"We are fighting the biggest fight for democracy," Chief Minister Raman Singh said. "We are not afraid of this fight and we will keep battling to end the rebel menace."
The rebels say they represent the poor, including farmers and members of tribal groups who live close to the land in rural areas, depending on forests for food, fuel and building materials for their thatched huts.
They have opposed efforts to open up the area for more mining, fearing it would degrade forests and pollute water sources.
They have accused police and government officials of colluding with landlords and rich farmers to exploit the country's neediest.
Politicians call the rebels terrorists who do not believe in democracy and attempt to prevent voters from going to the polls.
"Such attacks would demoralize the voters. That would be one of the objectives of the rebels. They are against democracy," said R.K. Singh, a former home secretary under a Congress-led government who recently joined the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.