NEW DELHI -- Communist rebels besieged a police outpost in eastern India yesterday, killing 54 people and wounding nearly a dozen more before fleeing into the surrounding jungle under cover of darkness.
The early morning raid was one of the bloodiest attacks in years by the so-called Naxalites, Maoist insurgents who have waged an armed campaign against the Indian government for four decades. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the group the nation's No. 1 threat to public security.
Police said that about 2 a.m. yesterday, up to 500 rebels descended on the remote outpost in the district of Bijapur, near the southern tip of Chhattisgarh, which has borne the brunt of Maoist violence. The guerrillas opened heavy fire and threw grenades and homemade gasoline bombs at the station, which was manned by a joint force of police and members of a state-sanctioned anti-Maoist militia.
The rebels seized 33 weapons, then vanished into the thick forest that blankets the area where Chhattisgarh meets the states of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Some probably fled across state lines, said police Superintendent Prabir Das, who is in charge of Chhattisgarh's anti-Naxalite operations.
"Boundaries exist for us; they don't exist for these guys," Das said by telephone from the state capital, Raipur.
He said 38 militiamen and 16 police officers were killed out of a total force of about 75 people at the station. Going in to rescue the injured, recover the dead and hunt the attackers was complicated by the guerrilla tactic of strewing the vicinity with land mines.
It was the single deadliest eruption of Maoist extremism in India since July, when insurgents stormed a government-run relief camp in Chhattisgarh, killing at least 32.
The New Delhi-based Asian Center for Human Rights said 749 people, including 285 civilians, were killed last year in Naxalite violence.
This month alone, at least a dozen other police officers in Chhattisgarh have died in Maoist-related incidents. And March 4, a member of parliament in neighboring Jharkhand, another poor state where the rebels have made inroads with their ideology of peasant revolt, was shot to death by suspected Naxalite assassins.
Analysts warned that the rash of violence could presage an escalation in attacks across the "red corridor," a swath of land from Andhra Pradesh in the south up to the Nepalese border, in which the Maoists have established a strong presence.
At a meeting in late January, rebel leaders decided to expand their operations, said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management.
"This suggests this is the beginning of a much wider operation. That is a very clear intention," Sahni said.
The Naxalite movement was launched in 1967 in West Bengal. Named after the district of Naxalbari, where the uprising began, the insurgents claim inspiration from Communist Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung's teachings of rebellion in the countryside.
The rebels have flourished in impoverished areas where the Indian government is often absent.
Henry Chu writes for the Los Angeles Times.