Naxalite rebels reportedly killed between 70 and 80 national and local Indian police personnel in a well-executed ambush April 6 in the eastern Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Naxalite ambushes targeting Indian police are common, especially in eastern India, but the April 6 attack was unusually large. This attack followed classic guerrilla ambush tactics that gave the assailants an overwhelming advantage over their targets.
Seventy to 80 local and national Indian police personnel reportedly were killed April 6 in the eastern Indian state of Chhattisgarh. The ambush was carried out by Naxalites, Maoist rebels who have been fighting for greater autonomy for eastern India for more than 40 years. Chhattisgarh sees regular violent Naxalite activity, but the April 6 attack is being called the deadliest Naxalite attack against security forces yet. Few other single Naxalite attacks have even approached this death toll; in fact, it surpasses the number of total casualties caused by Naxalites in most months, which usually falls between 20 and 50. Several factors — including the Naxalites' use of classic guerrilla ambush tactics — combined to make the attack particularly successful. (click here to enlarge image) Between 6 and 7 a.m. local time April 6, a column of approximately 120 police personnel from India's paramilitary security agency, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), and local law enforcement agencies was returning to base from a three-day operation in the jungles of Chhattisgarh's Dantewada district. The contingent was clearing a road to allow the Indian military to move in and conduct operations against the Naxalites. As the column traveled through the heavily forested terrain, the lead vehicle — a mine sweeper — hit at least one improvised explosive device (IED). The driver was killed and the vehicle was disabled in the blast, which forced the vehicles behind the mine sweeper to stop. Immediately after the blast, gunmen opened fire on the column from surrounding hills, killing 70-80 security personnel, including a deputy CRPF commandant and an assistant CRPF commandant along with the Dantewada district police head constable. Dozens more were injured. The inspector-general of police, R.K. Vij, has said approximately 1,000 Naxalite fighters were involved in the assault — a number that seems dubiously high, especially since authorities had no way to get reliable estimates of the number of assailants. There have not been reports of injured or killed Naxalites and, in fact, there is little indication that the ambushed security personnel were able to retaliate during the ambush. Reinforcement troops and helicopter gunships were sent to the area to hunt down the assailants, but given the dense vegetation and the Naxalites' superior knowledge of the terrain it is unlikely the attackers will be discovered anytime soon. Naxalites have commonly used the guerrilla tactics displayed in the attack but never with as much success. Several factors combined to make the targets particularly vulnerable to attack. First, collecting intelligence on the police forces would have been easy for the Naxalites, as the police had been in the area for several days. A group of 120 police officers is not going to go unheard or unseen in the jungle, and their preparations to leave the area — such as taking down tents and packing up vehicles — would have been easy to spot. Second, transportation networks in the jungles of India are few and undeveloped. The road the security personnel were clearing was important because it was one of the only roads in the area — which means the police officers had few options when it came to leaving the area. The attackers would have been able to anticipate the route the group would travel, allowing them to prepare and set up IEDs along the road. Furthermore, the few roads in the jungle are often very low-quality. Because of rough surfacing and narrow lanes, vehicles have to travel slowly and cannot easily maneuver around each other, making them more vulnerable. Disabling the first vehicle in a column can, in effect, disable the entire column, making all the vehicles easier targets — which is exactly what happened in the April 6 ambush. Third, the jungle provides cover for foot soldiers who can conceal themselves while staying relatively close to the road. This makes it difficult for any patrol to notice their presence and makes it easy to surprise a target like a noisy, multi-vehicle column. The assailants on April 6 also had the advantage of fighting from higher ground, giving them superior targeting capability. By initiating the attack from a concealed, elevated position, the Naxalites were able to gain the advantage of surprise and confusion, which surely contributed to the lopsided result. In such situations, the element of surprise and preparation can act as a force multiplier, leading to exaggerated estimates of the number of attackers. This may explain why officials are saying that 1,000 Naxalites were involved in the attack. Although it is possible 1,000 attackers were involved, that number is much higher than in previous Naxalite ambushes (the largest attacks usually involve around 200 fighters) and certainly seems excessive for an ambush like this. In fact, that many fighters would actually complicate the operation; more people would know about it, which would present risks of intelligence leaks and increase the chances of being spotted by the targets just before the attack. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has indicated that Naxalites pose the greatest threat to India's internal stability. The April 6 attack highlights the advantage that Naxalites have over Indian security forces. The dense jungle in which the Naxalites operate makes it easy for them to hide and difficult to attack by any outside forces. The April 6 ambush shows precisely why the strategy of sending in federal and local security forces to eradicate the Naxalites — a strategy long practiced by New Delhi — faces many challenges.