Lalgarh (West Bengal) : Security forces claimed to have gunned down four Maoists and marched through a forest to establish their control over Lalgarh Saturday before the rebels hit back, injuring six policemen in a landmine blast on the third day of the West Bengal government’s offensive against the leftwing radicals.
Using mineproof vehicles and landmine detectors, the forces Saturday morning traversed five kilometres through the Jhitka forest, considered a Maoist den, to set up a base camp at the Lalgarh police station in West Midnapore district after a 36-hour march that began from Pirakata Thursday afternoon.
Though the rebels failed to put up any resistance at Jhitka, they struck back with a vengeance this afternoon at Kadashole under Goaltore police station by triggering the blast on the Pingoboni-Sarenga road and engaged the forces in a gunbattle.
Police said four Maoists were killed in the firefight but top Maoist leader K. Koteshwar Rao denied any casualties on their side.
Two policemen had been injured in a landmine blast Friday.
Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee briefed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Home Minister Chidambaram and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee in New Delhi about the situation and said his government was seriously considering a suggestion to ban the Maoists.
“Chidambaram has advised me to ban the outfit. I said I will give the matter serious thought,” Bhattacharjee told newspersons. “I have started thinking on what to do (about banning it).”
He said the operation in Lalgarh to flush out the Maoists would continue for some time and added he was happy that the central government had “acted quickly” to send forces for the offensive.
A day after their advance was slowed down in the face of stiff resistance from the rebels, the central and state forces including commandos of the specialised anti-Maoist wing of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) tasted some success as they reached the Lalgarh police station that had been kept locked by policemen from inside since November as they were apprehensive of their own security.
The security forces have been advancing from four directions towards Lalgarh, where the Maoist guerrillas have been active in organising a movement alongside a tribal body. Lalgarh is 200 km from Kolkata.
Apart from the main contingent at Bhimpur, three teams are moving from Jhargam and Goaltor in West Midnapore district and Sarenga in Bankura.
Koteshwar Rao alias Kishanjee urged the authorities to halt the operations and apologise to the masses to begin a dialogue and exhorted Bhattacharjee not to “dance to the tune” of the central government.
Deputy Inspector General (Midnapore range) of state police Praveen Kumar threw a challenge to the Maoists. “We have surprises in store for them,” he said.
“Reaching Lalgarh is one part of the story. Our main objective is to see to it that the authority of the constitution, the state is restored by establishing the rule of law,” Kumar told the media at the police station.
He warned the Maoists that the forces would pay them back in the same manner if they were fired upon and the rebels would be put behind bars.
“We would never like to attack anybody other than the Maoists. But when there are human shields against us, then some things happen on the spur of the moment. But we will show restraint as far as common people are concerned.”
A paramilitary trooper, participating in the operation, died of heat stroke after falling sick at the Jhitka jungles, Inspector General of state police (Law and Order) Raj Kanojia told IANS in Kolkata.
This is the first death among security forces after they started the march.
On the other hand, spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Saturday said Maoists in Lalgarh are willing for negotiations if their basic demands for water and electricity are met.
Lalgarh has been on the boil since last November when a landmine exploded on the route of the convoy of Chief Minister Bhattacharjee and then central ministers Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitin Prasada.
Complaining of police atrocities after the blast, angry tribals launched an agitation virtually cutting off the area from the rest of the district.
During the last few days, the agitators have torched CPI-M offices, driven away the ruling party’s supporters and forced the police to leave, thereby establishing a virtual free zone.
Maoists are active in three western districts of the state – West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia. They also backed the Trinamool Congress-sponsored movement against the state government’s bid to establish a chemical hub at Nandigram in East Midnapore district.