INTERVIEW-India says Maoist rebels weakening for the first time

Fri Mar 26, 2010 11:31am EDT


By Bappa Majumdar

NEW DELHI, March 26 (Reuters) - Indian security forces are reclaiming territory from Maoist rebels for the first time in the decades-long insurgency, capitalising on better intelligence and pressure by troops, a senior official said on Friday.

The Maoists, described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the country's biggest internal security threat, started their armed struggle in West Bengal's Naxalbari town in 1967, and have expanded their support among farmers by tapping into resentment at the government's pro-industry push.

They have spread into rural pockets in 20 of India's 28 states and the movement has hurt business potentially worth billions of dollars in mining industries in central and eastern India.

But the government says it has taken back the momentum ever since it launched an offensive against the rebels late last year, reclaiming some areas in the mineral-rich states of Orissa and Jharkhand and neighbouring Bihar and West Bengal.

"We are getting ground level intelligence from within the Maoist cadres for the first time," U.K. Bansal, India's internal security chief, told Reuters in an interview.

Bansal, the government's special secretary for internal security, said troops were getting information from villagers and some rebels about the location of their comrades and their plans.

"There are fissures within the organisation which are helping us penetrate and reclaim territories," Bansal said.

The rebels carried out more than 1,000 attacks last year, killing more than 600 people, and disrupted movement of coal and bauxite in eastern and central India worth millions of dollars.

They also extorted about $307 million from companies in east and central India last year, home ministry officials say.

But Bansal said troops have scored successes with dozens of rebels captured and forces reclaiming rebel strongholds.

Indian police killed four rebels on Friday, including a senior rebel commander in a gun battle in the eastern state of West Bengal and reclaimed several villages held by the rebels.

"In Orissa state there have been a lot of surrenders in the last few months, we are slowly making headway everywhere," Bansal said.

At least 100 Maoist rebels have surrendered or been arrested in the past six months from various parts of the country, home ministry officials say.

Facing pressure from central troops, the rebels offered a 72-day ceasefire last month, a proposal dismissed by the government as a ruse to regroup.

Bansal however said it would be a long battle to completely overpower the Maoists as the rebels had modern firepower at their disposal, mainly looted from police armouries.

Last month, the rebels killed 35 people in back-to-back attacks in two eastern Indian states, including a daylight attack on a police camp that raised a storm of criticism over India's ability to tackle the threat.

About 8,000-10,000 Maoist fighters are still not involved in actual gun battles with troops, officials have said.

"We have just started to make inroads, it will take a long time as we are talking about 20,000 (Maoist) fighters here," Bansal added. (Editing by Matthias Williams)