BHUBANESWAR, India (AFP) — At least 21 Indian commandos were killed Wednesday in a Maoist rebel attack in the mineral-rich but impoverished east of the country, officials said.
The attack came as top officials met in New Delhi to try and devise a strategy to stamp out the worsening left-wing guerilla revolt in a large swathe of the country left out of India's economic boom.
Federal home ministry and state officials said a special counter-insurgency unit was hit by a landmine blast while patrolling Malkangiri district, a known Maoist stronghold in the far south of Orissa state.
"So far we can confirm 21 policemen belonging to special operations group were killed in the landmine blast," Orissa's police chief, Gopaal Nand, told AFP in state capital Bhubaneswar.
"The policemen were travelling to locate landmines, as the rebels had organised roadblocks on a strategic road," he said, adding that fighting was continuing into the night.
A group of special commandos was attacked on a reservoir in the same area on June 29. That incident left around 35 dead and dozens injured.
Rebel activity is mainly concentrated in Chhattisgarh state, which borders Orissa, but has spread to around half of India's 29 states.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described the rebels, known here as Naxalites, as the biggest threat to the country's internal security.
The latest heavy death toll to be inflicted on the overstretched and poorly-trained security forces operating in the east coincided with a fresh government effort to come up with ways to tackle the rebellion.
Indian Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta told reporters Wednesday's meeting would lead to the creation of new, specialised commando units to be deployed in the worst-hit Indian states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.
"Moreover the home ministry will also set up six jungle warfare and counter-insurgency schools this year," he said, adding the work will be started "without any delay."
New Delhi has refused to hold peace talks with the shadowy rebels unless they renounce violence, and has also struggled to come up with a strategy to battle the guerrillas.
Some officials have called for a massive security operation of the kind used to battle insurgents in Indian Kashmir, but the heavy-handed approach adopted so far has exposed federal and state officials to fierce criticism from rights groups.
On Tuesday, US-based watchdog Human Rights Watch accused the government of backing an anti-Maoist vigilante group that has forced at least 100,000 people from their homes in Chhattisgarh state.
Other officials 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 -- providing a fertile rebel recruiting ground.
Analyst P.V. Ramana, with the Institute of Defence and Studies and Analyses, said New Delhi lacked a "clear vision and an accurate assessment of the Maoist strength" -- unlike the Maoists, who are known to be well-organised.
He said there was also an "unwillingness to accept that this is a political problem