Operation Lalgarh: cobras, satellites, spies

This page is a part of Sanhati’s Lalgarh reporting. It collects developing news on Operation Lalgarh, an Operation in the course of which locals received their first acquaintance with Indian scientific achievement in the form of spy satellites, and a rare acquaintance with mainstream media, in the form of embedded “war” journalists.

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Satellite, cobras, helicopter in the hunt for rebels

The Telegraph

Goaltore, June 26, 2009: The country’s spy in the sky today helped forces kick off their first full-blooded assault on the Maoists holed up in Lalgarh.

Using images captured by Risat-2, which the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) had launched in April, the forces recaptured that slice of the liberated zone where the Maoist concentration was believed to be highest.

“From the images, we could figure out that the villages along the stretch from Goaltore to Ramgarh were empty. But the forests had a huge concentration of people, suspected Maoist guerrillas,” said a senior state police officer.

Central and state officers met in Midnapore town last night and drew up their plan on the basis of inputs from Risat-2, the country’s first satellite that can send images of the ground even after nightfall.

Since Tuesday, a senior military intelligence officer had been scanning the images — beamed by Risat-2 from an altitude of 550km — analysing them at Fort William and sending the inputs to the state home department. The intelligence was forwarded to Midnapore IG Kuldeip Singh.

Although the satellite — developed with help from Israel — provided black-and-white still images with a lag of six hours, they threw up many clues about Maoist movements.

“The images revealed that the Maoists had mobilised a huge force and so we decided to get more personnel at Goaltore,” said a senior state police officer, explaining the delay in launching the final assault.

The officers first felt the need for credible intelligence of the areas deep inside Lalgarh when the Maoists beat back a state paramilitary team at Pingboni on June 19.

“As we didn’t have any intelligence from the ground, satellite images of the area were the only option. The state government got in touch with the Union home ministry earlier this week to activate Isro,” explained a senior state official.

According to him, this was the first time images captured by Risat-2 were used in an operation against the Maoists.

“When we started the operation this morning, we had a fair idea about the Maoist hideouts and so our men could start shelling specific areas,” said a central force officer.

Although the security forces could not give any information on enemy casualties, a senior officer told The Telegraph the heavy mortar shelling forced them to retreat.

“We could not have launched the operation without the satellite images,” said the officer, adding that today’s takeover of Kadashole was also a tech triumph.

Cobras:

The Telegraph

Goaltore, June 26: Around Thursday midnight, 190 members of the CRPF’s Cobra unit left the base camp here with one brief: sanitise the 6km stretch of paddy fields past Pingboni and up to the forest that starts before Kadashole.

The Cobras split into two groups and fanned out about 2km deep into the fields on either side of the road.

“We knew the entire stretch would be full of improvised explosive devices,” an officer said.

“But unlike mines that explode on pressure, these devices have wires and need to be detonated. So the Cobra force personnel were told to find out if there were any Maoists lurking in the paddy fields to do the job.”

The Cobras were armed with sniper rifles with night-vision telescopes and told to shoot Maoists at sight.

Police said the operation was successful as the Maoists could not detonate any of the explosive devices they had planted along this stretch and which were eventually either defused or destroyed through controlled blasts by experts from the CID’s bomb squad.

Initially, when operation Lalgarh began at Bhimpur last week, there were only 40 members of the Cobra unit. Yesterday, 150 more were sent to Goaltore, where the first batch was already stationed.

Today, after the operation ended at Kadashole for the day, the Cobras made a security ring around the camp that had been set up over there.

Early tomorrow morning, a few hours before the force sets out for Ramgarh and resumes its operation, the Cobras will spread out into the forests and sanitise it so the force does not face any resistance.

The forest ends about 1km from Ramgarh, so nearly 5km of it would have to be sanitised.

The police said the Cobras had been instructed to go around 500 metres deep into the forest.

“In any case, the force has been instructed to fire mortars into the jungles, whether or not they spot any Maoists,” an officer said.

“This way, we can reduce resistance to the minimum because the forests provide good cover for the Maoists.”

Once in Ramgarh, the Cobra jawans will take position there ahead of the advancing forces.

This is being done because under pressure from the forces, some of the Maoists may attempt to flee the jungles and take shelter in Ramgarh.

The police said the Cobras waiting there will be the “reception committee” waiting to greet the fleeing Maoists.

“We are hoping that some of them will fall into this trap,” an officer said. “But for that we will have to wait for tomorrow.”

Helicopters:

In the battleground, a huge team of paramilitary troopers and state armed policemen set out from their camp in Goaltore bordering Bankura district Friday morning and reclaimed strategic pockets of Pingboni and Kadasole after overcoming resistance in a forested stretch, an official said.

The extremists triggered a landmine blast and fired at the forces in the Pingboni jungles, but fled after the troopers returned the fire.

Later, specialists accompanying the security personnel defused three more mines planted by the Maoists by the roadside.

“The operations went on smoothly, and the forces have camped at Kadasole. There has been no casualty on our side,” Inspector General of Police (Law and Order) Raj Kanojia told IANS, refusing to divulge details of the operations.

A helicopter kept surveillance as the security forces rode mine-protected vehicles and used handheld mine detectors to find mines, and fish out the rebels from the surrounding villages.

Carrying mortars, light machine guns and AK-47s, a section of the forces cordoned off Pingboni after the blast to search for more mines. The other troopers marched on to establish control over other Maoist-affected pockets closing in on Ramgarh, nine km from Goaltore, where the rebels had earlier this month torched a police camp and driven out the civil administration.

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The Battle for Kadashole

June 26, 2009. Sujan Dutta, The Telegraph

Central forces on Friday engaged the Maoists in by far the fiercest firefight in the Lalgarh operation, pushing through territory from where Bengal police were beaten back last week and reaching within 6km of Ramgarh, the suspected rebel hub.

The site of Friday’s gun fight was the mouth of the forest in Kadashole, 8km from the Goaltore base camp from where 10 companies — six central and four state, totalling 1,000 personnel — set out in the morning. The forces came across several bombs on the way. The Maoists detonated some, too, but most went off before the forces were within range. On Saturday, the forces are expected to try to complete the march to Ramgarh.

A rusty wired-up can covered with newsprint sits in the middle of the road on the edge of the Kadashole forest. Battalion commandant Pankaj skirts around it and instructs his men to follow suit but a young man is impatient: Insas rifle in one hand and devil-may-care in the mind, he kicks it away.

He lives, intact and unharmed, as do we.

Another bloody dud. The fifth.

Pankaj laughs. He asks his lieutenant to withdraw to Kadashole but first secure the flanks. The lieutenant sidles up and asks: “We have just come through this village — Kadashole — can you tell me where the people are?”

The security forces captured territory — eight kilometres of it — today in the operations to reclaim Lalgarh without knowing where the people are. Kadashole, the village of about 350 households that the forces entered and set up camp in, was deserted but for the very elderly and just about three other families.

The CRPF battalion lieutenant was mystified just like his troopers. But theirs is not to reason why. “Tomorrow we’ll go to Lalgarh if we are asked to,” he said. The young man who kicked the can that could have been a bomb came along and said: “Do teen ko to marna hi hai is taraf ya us taraf (Two or three have to get killed on this side or the other).”

Thankfully, nothing’s bloody. The dud that was kicked was just another calling card the Maoists left behind without camouflage. If you can read the lettering, it says: “We were here.”

This is within five minutes of a firefight and the nerves are taut. Expletives strive to keep pace with bullets. There is no time or space for decency here. None of Bengal’s convoluted rhetoric about taking on the rebels “politically”. At this cutting edge, it is kill or be killed.

For the record, the 66th battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force today cut through the Pingboni “border” and advanced about 6.5km to Kadashole in Bengal’s operation to reclaim Lalgarh. This is along a northern axis of the area of operations.

Pingboni was where the Bengal Armed Police and the Eastern Frontier Rifles were beaten back by the rebel militia last Saturday even as the security forces pushed through the Pirakata-Bhimpur axis — a little to the south — to Lalgarh police station.

The 66th reached Goaltore last afternoon. The battalion was originally stationed near Patna. The 66th has been in operations against Naxalites in Malkangiri in Orissa.

The platoon commander says Malkangiri was different. In Malkangiri, he says, the Maoists stood and fought. Here, they plant bombs and vanish.

“**** they think they can rule the country with such kuchcha bombs?” the platoon commander goes on. His battalion commandant is out of earshot.

The advance party of the 66th marched through Pingboni, mostly off the road. There were two sections covering the flanks. The road was suspected to be mined — the suspicion turned out to be true — but there were a lot of duds.

There were two explosions that were loud and could have been lethal. One exploded before the security forces reached the spot. The Maoists timed it too early.

The second was an improvised explosive device. The Maoists’ armed squad did not appear to have the wherewithal to embed mines into metalled roads and cover them up. So they used implements to direct the impact of an explosion.

In this instance, they had used a cutaway from a telephone pole about three feet in length. An anti-sabotage team that followed — and was not with the advance party — defused it near a bridge in two hours after five tries.

Bengal police’s deputy inspector-general (CID), Siddhi Nath Gupta, and the CRPF’s DIG, B.R. Kamath, are with the platoon that is going along the road.

Gupta gets a phone call from a superior — it is not clear whether the senior officer belongs to the CRPF or Bengal police. “Yes, sir,” Gupta says. “We are advancing towards Kadashole, kuchh mines mila hai (we have found some mines). I have called the BD (bomb disposal squad).”

Even as Gupta is talking on the phone, commandant Pankaj instructs his men over the walkie-talkie: “Fire control order till direction of fire is known.” The troops are expecting fire. This is about three hours before reaching Kadashole.

The media is held back behind a bridge till the bomb disposal squad does its job. It is a long while. But before that Gupta and Kamath — Bengal police and the CRPF — have an argument. Gupta is speaking on the phone and talking to Kamath at the same time.

Kamath is worried about casualties among his men. He suggests that with the mines being found, it is advisable to watch instead of going ahead right away. That is probably what the phone call is about.

“No, Sir, I will not pull one company back,” Gupta tells the superior on the phone.

The orders probably are to draw back if the road is mined and if opposition is estimated to take casualties.

Kamath, the CRPF DIG, asks what’s up.

Gupta replies: “I am on the spot and I will take the decisions. How can we decide what we should do on the basis of telephone instructions!”

But why is Gupta — the Bengal police are supposed to lead — going ahead without a mine-protected vehicle (MPV) in front? That was the drill when the forces went through the Jhitka forest to the Lalgarh police station last Saturday. Gupta replies: “We want to sanitise the road.”

Twenty minutes later, the MPV is called up. But it is asked to stay at the bridge.

Most of the troops are on the flanks as they near Murakati village on the left. It is not on the road. A blast and a column of smoke and then a burst of automatic gunfire.

On the other flank, beyond a depression, about five figures are running away into the distance. There is more firing.

One jawan on the road tells his officer: “Teen magazine to ho gaya.” A magazine in an AK has 20 bullets. This is the first firefight.

There is another. That is just after Kadashole. The CRPF advance party has to lie down as forces behind them fire.

They have spotted between eight and 10 people in civilian clothes kneeling on the road that leads to the forest, as if they are doing something to the road. On either side of the road, the land undulates.

Forces behind the advance party spot the men first. They fire — over the head of the advance party. The advance party has to hit dirt.

The suspected Maoists retreat while firing from single-barrel and double-barrel guns that were said to be .303 or country-made. The CRPF advance party fires away right up to the edge of the forest.

The forces are asked not to advance further. The terrain here is so treacherous that it is difficult to distinguish between friend and foe. In between, there is the forest. Then there is another road to Lalgarh.

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Wanted: Lalgarh spy

June 25 2009. The Telegraph

Police are on a recruitment overdrive in Lalgarh to gather intelligence on the Maoists and their local collaborators.

The salary is negotiable but the job comes with a perk, a prepaid cellphone connection.

“We have got 50 people, but we need more,” said a senior state police officer.

The first batch of recruits — selected primarily from villages near Lalgarh thana — have already started working. They have got their phones and list of officers with whom they should be in touch.

Lower-rung policemen in Lalgarh and Goaltore are helping the officers identify the potential candidates.

“Convincing them to work for us is a challenge as they are wary of getting identified. We have told them that they won’t have to come to the thana or meet a policeman,” said the officer.

According to him, the lure of a fixed salary — which he refused to divulge — and immunity from police action helped in getting the first 50 on board.

The officers in charge of Lalgarh and Goaltore thanas have briefed them about their mandate — tracking the movement of the Maoists, gathering information in advance on meetings between the rebels and People’s Committee leaders and locating houses where arms and ammunition have been stored.

Senior state and central force officers had told The Telegraph the biggest handicap was lack of intelligence inputs.

Although the forces have taken position in Lalgarh and Goaltore in West Midnapore and Sarenga in Bankura, they haven’t been able to move into the core areas in the absence of credible information on where the Maoists could be holed up. “It will be suicidal to enter the core areas without proper intelligence,” said a central force officer.

Till November, local CPM cadres were the primary source of information for the district intelligence branch and the intelligence bureau. The network collapsed after the Maoists started ruling the region.

“Unless we have local sources, it is going to be extremely difficult to identify the Maoists, who have mingled with the villagers,” explained a senior officer.

The job for the new recruits would not be easy. “Although these men are from Lalgarh, we haven’t got people from the core area. Those villages are still out of bounds,” said the officer.

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Ramgarh falls: Rebels signal tactical retreat

The Maoists tonight scrambled to save face after the soft surrender of “stronghold” Ramgarh but appeared to be preparing the ground for a “temporary” withdrawal from the entire battle zone.

A rebel leader claimed the retreat from Ramgarh was a “tactical” and “honourable” one and promised a stronger fight in the coming days.

He, however, conceded that the security forces could recapture the whole of Lalgarh, forcing the Maoists “to leave for Jharkhand for the time being”.

Before leaving, the rebels would explain their compulsions to the villagers — whom they had promised to “protect” from police — at secret meetings while pledging to return once the central forces left, he told The Telegraph.

Such a meeting was held tonight at Kantapahari, still under Maoist control, where the rebels met the villagers under the banner of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities. Committee leader Chhatradhar Mahato told families not to leave their village if the forces recaptured it, adding: “Our activities will pick up once the central forces have left.”

The Maoist leader who spoke to this newspaper claimed the government forces would face a tougher fight when they march northwards from Lalgarh town to Ramgarh (today’s advance was westwards from Kadashole). He acknowledged the rebels needed to put up “as stiff a resistance as possible” so the villagers would not feel “let down”.

“We have won their confidence; they have some expectations from us. If we don’t put up any resistance, we shall lose goodwill.” He said that when the police start advancing from Lalgarh, they would be attacked from the deserted mud huts in roadside villages and from trenches dug near ponds. “We shall put up stiff resistance in our strongholds at Barapelia, Dalilpur Chowk and Kantapahari.”

Today’s retreat from Ramgarh was tactical, he claimed, because “we were not equipped to beat back such a massive force carrying sophisticated weaponry”. It was also honourable because “at least we managed to detonate an explosive and engage the police in a firefight”.

He admitted a “tactical mistake”, though. “If we had detonated our IED only after the police had entered deep into the jungle, there would definitely have been casualties. Unfortunately, we detonated it when the police were just entering the jungle.”

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Next Phase of Assault by Security forces

June 29, 2009. Zee News

Launching their final offensive to reclaim areas held by the Maoists in West Midnapore district, security forces started marching towards Kantapahari from both Lalgarh and Ramgarh.

The forces, comprising 1600 men of the CRPF, BSF, State Armed Police and India Reserve Battalion set out at around 7:00 am from Lalgarh and Ramgarh in a pincer movement, a senior CRPF officer told a a news agency correspondent accompanying the forces.

Around 180 men of the COBRA forces were accompanying the central forces and state police to sanitise areas, especially jungles. A helicopter was in the air to spot the Maoists from above. ‘

“Taking Kantapahari is important for us, as it holds the key to the Maoist resistance in West Midnapore district,” intelligence sources said.

Intelligence sources said that Kantapahari, besides the surrounding villages of Boropelia, Chottopelia and Dalilpur Chowk, from which the tribal unrest began last November against police atrocities, had a large concentration of Maoists, who were backing the tribals.

Boropelia is the home village of Convenor of the Peoples Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA), Chhatradhar Mahato, whom the security forces were looking for.

The PCPA had started the agitation to protest police raids on their homes after Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and the then union ministers, Ramvilas Paswan and Jitindra Prasad narrowly escaped a landmine blast at Salboni in the district on November two last year by Maoists.

The forces had secured Ramgarh, a village which held a large concentration of Maoists, in the second phase of the operations on Saturday. The operations by the security forces was launched first on June 19, when a human shield of tribals was demolished swiftly at Pirakata.

A day later, the security forces marched into Lalgarh police station, which had been under siege since November last year.