Maoists' hijacking of Indian train reveals new audacity

Some 300 Naxalite rebels hijacked a swanky passenger train Tuesday. The attack ended peacefully, but the urban target shocked India and deepened concern about the rebels' reach.

Passengers stand in front of the Rajdhani Express after it was stopped by guerrillas at a remote station at Banstala, west of the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, on Tuesday.

NEW DELHI – As the Rajdhani Express chugged into Delhi Wednesday night, Indian newspapers were printing stories of its dramatic adventure on Thursday's front pages.

The train – one of India’s fastest, swankiest passenger trains – had been hijacked by at least 300 ax- and sword-wielding Maoist rebels Tuesday morning as it sped through West Bengal on its way from the eastern state of Orissa toward the Indian capital. After a five-hour drama, during which the driver was taken hostage and passengers were forced off the train and into the jungle, the rebels surrendered. No one was hurt.

But the attack has shocked India and heightened concerns about the spread of Maoist rebels, who are now thought to operate in 20 of the country’s 29 states. Also known as Naxalites, after the village, Naxalbari, in which their uprising began in 1967, the rebels claim to fight for India’s poorest.

Though Maoists regularly attack trains with goods and have, on occasion, hijacked local trains in remote areas, this attack on a Delhi-bound train signal increasing audacity. For urban Indians, it has brought the Maoists out of the eastern jungle areas in which their presence is most heavily concentrated.

One passenger told the Times of India newspaper, "It seemed that we were in a ship, not in a train, which had been taken captive by the Somali pirates." Other papers reported that the passengers had been treated kindly by the Maoists, who helped them with their baggage and offered them water.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently warned that security forces were failing to tackle the Maoist insurgency. He has also said the rebels are increasingly gaining support among a cross-section of society.

His government recently began a major crackdown on the rebels – to which Tuesday’s hijack may have been a response. As they boarded the train, the rebels are reported to have demanded the release of their members from prison and an end to alleged abuses by security forces.

Wednesday, the government warned that there would be more Maoist attacks in public places.

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