BHUBANESWAR, India (AFP) — At least 39 members of an elite Indian anti-insurgency unit were missing feared drowned in the east of the country Sunday after their boat capsized following an attack by Maoist rebels, police said.
The boat, which was carrying 64 people, came under heavy rebel fire while patrolling a reservoir near Malkangiri in the south of the coastal state of Orissa, police said.
Twenty-five policemen managed to swim ashore and were taken to hospital -- and many of them to be treated for serious gunshot wounds, police said.
No bodies have yet been found, although rescue officials recovered some police caps.
"The boat capsized after insurgents started firing indiscriminately at the Greyhound force," Malkangiri police superintendent, Satish Kumar Gajbhiye, told AFP by telephone from the area.
The attack was one of the biggest Maoist assaults on security personnel since March last year, when the rebels slaughtered 55 policemen in central Chhattisgarh state.
The Greyhound force is a special unit based in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state. It was in the area on a joint operation with the Special Operations Group of the Orissa police to flush out insurgents from the forests.
Officials said helicopters have been sent to the area to search for any police who may have survived in the 40-metre (130-feet) deep reservoir.
Witnesses, however, said police had little hope of finding many more people alive.
The remote tribal district, on the border with the insurgency-hit states of Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, is in the heart of an eastern swathe of the country where the Maoists are increasingly active.
Mineral-rich Orissa is also one of India's poorest states.
In February, Indian security forces killed at least 35 guerrillas in the state in one of the biggest crackdowns to date after the rebels killed 13 policemen and one civilian in raids on security posts.
The Maoist insurgency, which grew out of a peasant uprising in 1967, has hit half of India's 29 states and is centred in a heavily forested region in central Chhattisgarh state.
Last year, 834 people were killed in Maoist-related violence nationwide.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has warned that the shadowy guerrillas -- known in the country as "Naxalites" -- were stepping up their insurgency in vast areas that had missed out on India's economic boom.
He has also described them as the biggest threat to India's internal security, although federal and state authorities have been struggling to come up with a strategy to battle the guerrillas.
Some officials have called for a massive and coordinated security operation of the kind used to battle insurgents in Indian Kashmir, while others have said the focus needs to be placed on improving living conditions in India's impoverished hinterland.
According to official figures, tribal villagers in the insurgency-hit east have no more than 35 cents a day to spend, the lowest in the country and providing for a fertile rebel recruiting ground.