India troops launch hunt for rebels who killed 24

NEW DELHI (AP) - Troops fanned out across central India on Monday in a massive manhunt days after hundreds of Maoist rebels attacked a convoy of ruling party members and leaders, killing 24 people in an area considered the stronghold of the rebels, police said.

Mr Ram Niwas, a top police official in Chhattisgarh state, did not give details about Monday's search operations but said thousands of troops were working in the "inhospitable terrain" to hunt down those responsible for the attack.

"There are hills, rivers and dense forests and the population is very sparse. Searching these areas is very difficult," he said.

Saturday's ambush in Bastar district, which targeted Congress party politicians returning from a campaign event with the area's indigenous tribal community, appeared to be a warning to officials to stay away from the stronghold. The rebels are thought to now operate in or control vast areas in 20 of India's 28 states.

Apart from senior party leaders, those killed included Mr Mahendra Karma, a Congress party leader who founded a local militia, the Salwa Judum, to combat the Maoist rebels. The anti-rebel militia had to be reined in after it was accused of atrocities against tribals - indigenous people at the bottom of India's rigid social ladder.

News reports and police said the attackers blocked a road about 345 kilometres south of Raipur, Chhattisgarh's capital, with trees, forcing the convoy to halt. The rebels then triggered a land mine that blew up one of the cars and fired at the Congress party leaders and their supporters before fleeing into the forest.

The Naxalite movement began in 1967 as a network of extreme leftwing ideologues and young recruits in the village of Naxalbari outside Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal state. Two of the main factions merged in 2004 to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist).

The bulk of their estimated 30,000 fighters are concentrated in a so-called "Red Corridor" that runs through the dense, mineral-rich forest belt from the Nepal border to the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.