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NEW DELHI – Thousands of troops searched through the densely forested stronghold of Maoist rebels in eastern India on Monday for those who ambushed a convoy of ruling party officials and supporters, killing 24, police said.
The attack in Chhattisgarh state showed that the Maoists still have the ability to strike, even at heavily guarded convoys, despite claims by the government that it has greatly weakened a guerrilla insurgency it termed the nation's greatest internal security threat.
"There are hills, rivers and dense forests and the population is very sparse. Searching these areas is very difficult," said Ram Niwas, a top state police official.
The federal government rushed in 2,000 paramilitary troops to reinforce the 30,000 troops already stationed in Chhattisgarh to combat the rebels, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
Officials from the National Investigation Agency, established after the 2008 Mumbai attack to fight terrorism, have also been flown in to lead the investigation.
The ambush Saturday came after a relative break in Maoist violence. While smaller skirmishes have occurred over the past three years, the Maoists' last major attacks in Chhattisgarh were in 2010, including their bloodiest ever attack, in which they ambushed a paramilitary patrol and killed 76 troops. A month later, they triggered a roadside bomb under a bus carrying civilians and police, killing 31 people.
Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, said the violence declined over the last three years because the government stopped actively attacking the rebels. He said the Maoists were conserving their resources, and had not lost their capabilities.
Niwas, however, said security forces remained in "constant battle mode" and had not been complacent.
In rural villages deep in areas like Bastar, where the attack took place, the government is completely absent. There are often no schools or hospitals, and electricity and safe tap water are unheard of. Thousands die each year of malaria.
Because the areas are rich in natural resources like minerals, many tribal people have been forced off their land to make way for mines and other industries.
The Maoist insurgency feeds on the anger of the tribes who have been excluded from the nation's economic surge.
The insurgency began in 1967 as a network of leftwing ideologues and young recruits in the village of Naxalbari outside Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal state. The rebels, who took the name Naxalites, are now estimated to have 30,000 fighters and have pledged to violently overthrow the Indian government.
They control vast swathes of the so-called Red Belt in central and eastern India, where troops and officials rarely venture. The rebels are thought to operate in 20 of India's 28 states.
Saturday's ambush, which targeted Congress party politicians returning from a campaign event with the indigenous tribal community, appeared to be a warning to officials to stay away from the marginalized groups from which the Maoists draw their support.
The victims included Mahendra Karma, a Congress official who founded the much-criticized Salwa Judum militia to combat the rebels. The Salwa Judum had to be reined in after it was accused of atrocities against the tribals it claimed to be protecting.
Angry and often violent protests from local tribes stalled South Korean steel giant Posco's plans to build a $12 billion plant in the eastern state of Orissa, and London-based mining giant Vedanta Resources' plans to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills in the same state.
The rebels have ambushed police, destroyed government offices and abducted government officials. They have blown up train tracks, attacked prisons to free their comrades and stolen weapons from police and paramilitary warehouses.
Since 2005, more than 6,000 people — including civilians, security troops and the rebels themselves — have died in Maoist violence across the country, according to data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management.
"The government has no idea of what the people in these areas need and they don't even care," said Nandini Sundar, a sociologist who does extensive research in the area.
The Maoists in contrast are "quite deeply embedded in the local community," she said.
In 2009, the federal government announced a renewed military push — "Operation Greenhunt" — to oust the rebels. That effort petered out without any significant results, Sahni said.
"Most top police and political leaders have no idea of what is happening on the ground," he said. "Their own lives are hardly ever at stake. It's the lower security cadres who bear the brunt."