June 18, 2009 / 8:12 AM / 11 years ago

West Bengal begins to reclaim "liberated" Maoist zone

KOLKATA (Reuters) - Hundreds of police were deployed on Thursday to push back Maoist rebels who declared a “liberated zone” close to Kolkata, sparking unease among investors in communist-ruled West Bengal.

A policeman carries a mortar launcher as he arrives to attend a briefing before heading to a violence-hit area in Pirakata near Lalgarh, some 165 km west of Kolkata, June 18, 2009. REUTERS/Jayanta Shaw

The Maoists, who seek power through an armed struggle and say they are fighting for the rights of the poor, have killed at least 10 government supporters this week in a tribal area about 170 km from Kolkata.

In a separate attack, Maoist rebels killed nine policemen in a landmine blast on Thursday in neighbouring Orissa, police said.

In West Bengal, the communists have been in power for more than three decades, but the Maoists, who operate from jungle bases, have expanded their support among villagers by tapping their resentment at the government’s recent pro-industry push.

Hundreds of tribal men and women were seen patrolling villages in the Lalgarh area with bamboo sticks, axes and bows and arrows after the rebels declared it a “liberated zone” this week.

“The operation has started to reclaim the region from the Maoists who captured all police posts (in Lalgarh) on Monday,” Kuldiep Singh, inspector general of police in West Bengal, told Reuters.

“But we want to play it safe to ensure the civilian population is safe before we take any action.”

The violence has unnerved the industrial sector after violent protests by farmers forced the scrapping of a Tata Motors’ Nano car plant and a $3 billion chemicals hub complex.

India’s JSW Steel Ltd, the country’s third largest steel producer, is setting up a $7 billion, 10-million tonne steel plant near Lalgarh.

The conflict between industry and farmers reflects a wider battle in India, where efforts to modernise the densely populated country have often met with violent backlashes from villagers who make up more than half of India’s 1.1 billion population.

“The situation is dangerous,” said Kallol Dutta, chief of state-run heavy engineering firm Andrew Yule. “The immediate concern is security, but a political solution is needed.”

HUMAN SHIELDS

A senior state official said the Maoists were trying to use women and children as human shields against any police action.

“This is inhuman and dangerous. The women are being dragged into this terror act. I’m warning them (the Maoists) through the media,” state chief secretary Ashok Mohan Chakraborty said.

In perhaps their boldest action yet, the rebels backed by tribal villagers attacked police and government supporters in Lalgarh this week and cut off the area by digging up roads and cutting down trees.

The rebels torched houses of communist leaders in the area and police posts. Police say the rebels kidnapped and killed at least 10 Communist party workers in the region.

India is battling the Maoists in swathes of the eastern, central and southern countryside, an insurgency Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described as the biggest internal security challenge since independence.

The rebels number at least 22,000 in India and control some of the country’s mineral-rich areas.

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