BHUBANESHWAR, India (REUTERS, AFP) - Indian police killed at least 21 Maoist rebels in the eastern state of Odisha on Monday (Oct 24) after tracking them to a remote, forested area where a gunfight erupted shortly after midnight, police said.
It was one of the heaviest casualty tolls suffered this year by the insurgents, who have fought a decades-long war against the Indian state from jungle hideouts across eastern and central India.
Police said they ambushed a meeting of 30 to 40 Maoists in a forest near the border of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh states, triggering a gunbattle.
“Now 21 bodies of the Maoists have been recovered. The search operation is still on,” sub-inspector C.K. Dharua said by telephone from Malkangiri district in Odisha, where the attack occurred.
Sub-inspector Dharua had earlier confirmed 18 deaths but warned the toll could rise as “there was a large number of people at the meeting”.
A top Maoist leader and his son were suspected to be among those killed, the Press Trust of India news agency said, citing unnamed police.
Local media also said two police officers were injured in the battle, but that could not immediately be confirmed
Sub-inspector Dharua said weapons including four AK-47s and three self-loading rifles were recovered from the rebels in the forest, some 640km from the state capital Bhubaneswar.
Police acted on a tip-off that around 30 rebels had gathered close to the border with Andhra Pradesh state, Odisha police chief K.B. Singh said.
"It was a joint operation by Andhra and Odisha police conducted last night... The operation is still going on," Director-General of Police Singh said.
Maoist rebels accuse the Indian state of plundering the mineral-rich and underdeveloped east and central regions of the country at the expense of the poor and landless, among whom they retain some support.
While the level of violence has fallen in recent years, and the Maoists have lost hundreds of fighters to desertions and battles with security forces, the rebels remain capable of staging regular hit-and-run attacks across several states.
In July, Maoists killed at least 10 members of an elite Indian police force in the south of Bihar state.
According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, 337 people have been killed in left-wing extremist violence so far this year, more than half of them alleged insurgents.