India deploys air force, army against Maoists

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 August, 2009, 12:00am

India is deploying the army and air force for the first time against Maoist guerillas, described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the biggest threat to its internal security.

The Cabinet Committee on Security had also approved the use of helicopter gunships if the situation warranted their deployment, said a source in the inter-services committee preparing the blueprint for next month's assault.

Air power was last used in the 1960s during the counter-insurgency operations in Nagaland, in northeastern India.

Dr Singh's United Progressive Alliance government gave the go-ahead last week to the military offensive as the number of policemen gunned down by Maoists rose sharply to 250 by the end of last month - 10 times the number of security forces killed in violence-prone Kashmir and the northeast combined so far this year.

Maoist rebels, who say they are fighting for the rights of poor and landless people, call the shots in 170 of the country's 602 districts by the government's own admission.

The dreaded 'red corridor' extends from the India-Nepal border in the north to the south across Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. More than 6,000 police officers and civilians have died in the insurgency in two decades.

Referring to Maoist-controlled zones as India's 'killing fields', Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram regretted in Parliament that federal and provincial governments had underestimated the radicals' strength.

'The decision to unleash the army and air force is a virtual admission that guerillas belonging to the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) are better armed and trained than policemen,' Delhi-based security analyst Ajai Sahni said.

Dr Singh has summoned chief ministers of Maoist-affected states to New Delhi on August 17 for a private conference to discuss the military offensive, which is estimated will last up to two years.

Home Ministry figures show that there are about 15,000 armed male Maoist fighters besides 5,000 women who often spearhead attacks on police stations or convoys.

The Maoists have responded by threatening to counter 'state-sponsored terror' with lessons from the Tamil Tigers' defeat in Sri Lanka.