RAIPUR, India (AFP) - India's Maoists claimed responsibility on Tuesday for an attack that killed 24 people, saying local political leaders were targeted for their role in police offensives against the rebels.
The bloody ambush on Saturday, the deadliest attack in three years, was to avenge killings by security forces during the long-running conflict in the central state of Chhattisgarh, said the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist).
"We have taken revenge for the killing of over a thousand people by the hands of Salwa Judum goons and government security forces," the group said in a four-page statement sent to the BBC broadcaster's Hindi service.
Among those targeted in the attack was former state home minister Mahendra Karma, the statement said, who set up a controversial anti-Maoist militia group in 2005 called the Salwa Judum.
Hundreds of heavily-armed rebels ambushed a convoy carrying local leaders of India's governing Congress party as it travelled through the forested Sukma area, about 345km from the state capital Raipur.
They detonated a land-mine before opening fire, spraying 25 cars with bullets, then dragged people out and killed them, police said.
The Maoists said on Tuesday they regretted the death of any "innocents" or civilians in the attack.
The statement also accused the slain Karma's family of being landlords who "engaged in severe exploitation of tribals".
The guerrillas, who claim to be fighting for the rights of poor tribal minorities and farmers, have waged a decades-long battle across central and eastern states to overthrow state and national authorities.
The government describes the rebels as the country's most serious internal security threat.
India's chief anti-terrorism agency was investigating the attack and a major hunt was under way for the rebels, officials said.
The attack was the most brazen since 2010, when a rebel assault killed 76 police.
The Maoists, who have been fighting since 1967, want to establish a communist society by overthrowing what they call India's "semi-colonial, semi-feudal" form of rule.
The revolt is believed to have cost tens of thousands of lives.
In 2009, government forces launched a huge anti-Maoist offensive known as Operation Green Hunt, but the often poorly-trained police have had to contend with a deadly series of attacks.