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Maoists attack toll rises to 55
16 Mar 2007 5:07 GMT

The death toll in the attack on security forces by Maoist rebels in central India has risen to 55.

Thursday's attack, one of the worst in decades of insurgency, happened in the rebel stronghold area of Dantewada, in Chhattisgarh state.

The victims are mostly members of a civil militia that is supported by the state government to fight the Maoists.

The Maoists say they are fighting a long running insurgency for the rights of landless farmers and tribes.

Thousands have died in their campaigns in central and southern India.

Of the 55 security forces who died in the attack, 39 were "special police officers" or members of a civil militia called Salwa Judum that is supported by the state government. It was launched a year and a half ago to fight the Maoists.

There have been concerns about this arming of civilians and the lack of accountability of this new civil militia.

Tens of thousands of villagers have been displaced by the Salwa Judum campaign and are living in government camps across the state.

The rebels attacked the security post - manned by 75 policemen - in Bijapur just before dawn on Thursday.

Under cover of darkness, they surrounded it.

The BBC's Damian Grammaticas in Delhi says that the insurgents opened fire in a co-ordinated assault, throwing hand grenades and home-made petrol bombs into the compound before storming it.

They seized a hoard of weapons from the post, 1,500km south of Delhi, then escaped into the jungle.

The first security forces to arrive after the attack reported a large number of bodies scattered around the barracks but said they were unable to count them all because the rebels had planted land mines at the scene.

Earlier this month, five security personnel died in a landmine explosion in Dantewada district.

The rebels have a strong presence in eight of 16 districts of Chhattisgarh state.

The militants are known as Naxalites after the district where their Maoist-inspired movement was born in the late 1960s.

They have become so powerful in some districts they run their own parallel administrations and justice systems.

Until recently, Naxalites have operated in pockets of jungle in India's poorest states.

But correspondents say there is now more unity between the various groups, and that Thursday's attack will feed into anxiety that they pose a growing threat.

Analysts talk about the emergence of the Red Corridor, a great swathe of Maoist militancy which stretches all the way from the border with Nepal, south through India to the sea.

Around 6,000 Indians are thought to have died since the Naxalite uprising began.