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Maoist rebels are suspected of causing a passenger train to derail and collide with a cargo train in eastern India on Friday, killing at least 65 people and wounding at least 200 more.
The attack highlights the growing reach of the rebel movement, which now operates in 22 of India’s 28 states and which the Indian prime minister has called the biggest internal security threat India has ever faced.
The attack took place in the Indian state of West Bengal, about 90 miles west of Calcutta, in the early morning. The Associated Press reports that officials have differed on the cause of the derailment – a section of the railways was apparently removed, but some have reported an explosion took place as well. After the train derailed, some of the cars fell onto adjacent tracks into the path of an oncoming cargo train. The wreckage of twisted cars left many passengers trapped, and they waited more than three hours for rescue workers to arrive to begin cutting them out.
The Times of India reports that the Maoist-backed group the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities has claimed responsibility for the attack, and several of the group’s posters were found at the site. The posters stated that the group’s demand for a withdrawal of security forces from the area had not been met. The attack comes at the beginning of a “black week” called for by the rebels.
Numerous international newspapers quoted a spokesman for the group denying any role in the attacks, citing an article in the Press Trust of India, but this article could not be found on PTI's website.
If this was a Maoist attack, it would be the second major attack this month. On May 17, a bomb attack on a bus in the state of Chhattisgarh killed 36 people, including 12 police officers. Their most deadly attack, in April, killed 76 security personnel in the Dantewada area of Chhattisgarh. That strike caused widespread outrage, The Christian Science Monitor reported.
The Maoists, also called Naxalites, who claim to fight for India’s poor, have battled the government for four decades. Despite a massive offensive launched against them last year across seven states, called Operation Greenhunt, they rejected an offer of peace negotiations. The New York Times reports that the rebel group has been gaining momentum:
For more than 40 years, Maoist rebels, also known as Naxalites, have been active in the resource-rich states of eastern and central India, where they claim to represent the rights of tribal groups, and broadcast plans to overthrow the government. Attempts to put mines and factories in these areas have been thwarted by violence, and roads, schools, and bridges have been attacked.
The Hindustan Times reports that the rebels have attempted to sabotage trains in the region of Friday’s attack, a rural stronghold of the Maoists, three times in the past eight months. The newspaper also reports that a “patrol engine” had passed through the area where the attack took place Thursday night, according to Indian officials, suggesting that the sabotage to the tracks was well-timed to hit the passenger train.
The fact that the operation was timed to maximize civilian casualties shows a change in the tactics used by the Maoist rebels, reports the Wall Street Journal’s blog India Realtime. It compares Friday’s deadly attack to an incident in April 2009, when rebels took train passengers hostage before releasing them unharmed. The attack will bring the growing insurgency home to the Indian public:
"The strike is noteworthy for another reason, too. For many in India’s cities, the insurgency has been taking place almost in another country – the jungles and remote corners of central India, where bandana-clad rebels battle with poorly-equipped, hapless government police forces.
That could push the government to finally come up with a way to address the problem, which the Journal notes it has failed to do in the past. Just last week, the interior minister “caused a furor when he claimed to have only a 'limited mandate' in fighting the rebels, a remark later clarified to mean that it was primarily an issue for individual states to handle with help from the central government,” reports the paper.