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Page last updated at 13:36 GMT, Tuesday, 16 June 2009 14:36 UK

Maoist 'rampage' in West Bengal

Violence in Lalgarh
The house of a communist party leader was attacked

Hundreds of Maoists backed by thousands of villagers have seized the ruling party's last stronghold in a troubled part of India's West Bengal state.

Armed rebels are reportedly patrolling roads around the village of Dharampur in the Lalgarh area after police fled. Three people were killed, reports say.

Rebels have been entrenching themselves in Lalgarh since last November and now have almost total control of the area.

Maoist-linked violence has killed 6,000 people in India over the past 20 years.

The rebels operate in more than 180 districts across east and central India and are seen as a major threat to national security. Last week more than 20 police were killed in the eastern state of Jharkand.

The Maoists say they represent the rights of landless farmhands and tribal communities.

'Ransacked'

The BBC's Amitabha Bhattasali in Calcutta said that as hundreds of workers from the state's ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), fled the Lalgarh area, Maoists claimed it as their first "liberated" zone in West Bengal.

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Maoists set fire to an abandoned police post

One of the police posts was later set ablaze and the Maoists were reported to have demolished the house of a local communist leader.

"The Maoists went on a rampage yesterday in Dharampur village and ransacked our zonal secretary's home and party office before setting it on fire. Three of our men are dead and six more still missing," a CPI(M) official said.

The village of Dharampur was the last bastion for the ruling communist party in Lalgarh. Other villages in the area had been under Maoist control since November.

Our correspondent says that taking control of Lalgarh is part of a long-term plan for the Maoists.

The area encompasses vast tracts of the forests of West Midnapur, Purulia and Bankura districts of West Bengal and adjoins parts of the states of Jharkhand and Orissa.

Arrests

Lalgarh has experienced considerable unrest for a number of months.

The violence began last November when police arrested some local residents on suspicion of attempting to assassinate the chief minister of West Bengal state, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, after he narrowly escaped a landmine explosion set off by suspected Maoist rebels.

A Peoples' Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) was subsequently formed to protest against the arrests. They launched violent protests and strikes against the local police.

The police and state administration have been virtually non-existent in most of Lalgarh since then. Polling booths could not be set up for recent general elections so voters had to cast ballots outside the area.

Our correspondent says the insurgents and the CPI(M), which has been the state's dominant political force, have been fighting a turf war.

In the past few years, he says, the Maoists have extended their influence with guerrilla commanders camping in the area and providing basic military training to local youths.


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