Congress party activists shout slogans and wave placards in Allahabad yesterday in a show of solidarity after the deadly attack on their fellow members on Saturday. Photo: AFP

India 'Maoist rebels' kill 28 in attack on Congress party convoy

Four state leaders for India's ruling party left dead by 'devastating' rebel strike on group of officials and supporters in Chhattisgarh state

Officials have reacted with outrage to an audacious attack by about 200 suspected Maoist rebels who set off a roadside bomb and opened fire on a convoy carrying members of India's ruling Congress party, killing 28 people and wounding 24 others.

Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, accompanied by party president Sonia Gandhi, visited the injured yesterday in a hospital in the capital of eastern Chhattisgarh state and said the government would take firm action against the attackers.

Rajnath Singh, president of opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, said the country should unite in its fight against the Maoist insurgency.

The convoy was attacked on Saturday in a densely forested area about 345 kilometers south of Raipur, Chhattisgarh's capital, as the Congress members were returning from a party rally.

Four state party leaders and five police officers were among those killed.

Police identified one of those dead as Mahendra Karma, a Congress leader in Chhattisgarh 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.

The dead also included state Congress party chief Nand Kumar Patel and his son. The injured included former federal minister Vidya Charan Shukla, 83, police said.

The Press Trust of India news agency said the attackers blocked the road by felling trees, forcing the convoy to halt. Police officer R.K. Vij said the suspected rebels triggered a land mine that blew up one of the cars. The attackers then fired at the Congress party leaders and their supporters before fleeing.

The Congress party is the main opposition party in the state. It has stepped up political activities, trying to win the support of tribals, ahead of state elections planned for December.

"They don't have the political will and bureaucratic and police set-up to prevent such attacks," he said.

Singh has called the rebels India's biggest internal security threat. They are now present in 20 of India's 28 states and have thousands of fighters, according to the Home Ministry.

The rebels, known as Naxalites, have been fighting the central government for more than four decades, demanding land and jobs for tenant farmers and the poor. They take their name from the West Bengal village of Naxalbari where the movement began in 1967.

The fighters were inspired by Mao Zedong and have drawn support from displaced tribal populations opposed to corporate exploitation and official corruption. The government has offered to begin peace talks without success. The Maoists demand that it first withdraw thousands of paramilitary soldiers deployed to fight the rebels.

Maoist rebels carried out two major attacks in Chhattisgarh in 2010. They ambushed a paramilitary patrol in April, killing 76 troops in their worst attack ever. A month later, they triggered a land mine under a bus carrying civilians and police, killing 31.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Shock after Maoists kill 28 in Congress convoy attack