The toll of security personnel killed in an encounter with Maoists in Chhattisgarh rose to at least 22 on Sunday, after 17 more bodies were recovered from the jungles of Bijapur district, PTI reported.
At least one officer was reportedly missing as rescue teams continued the search operation for the second day, according to the Hindustan Times.
About 30 other personnel were injured in the incident, which took place on Saturday. The gunbattle broke out when a joint team of security forces was out on an anti-Maoist operation. Two Naxalites were also killed in the gunfight.
More than 2,000 personnel from at least five camps in Sukma and Bijapur had gone into the forest around Tarrem in Bijapur district. They were trapped in an ambush while returning from the operation.
Personnel belonging to the Central Reserve Police Force, its elite unit CoBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action), the District Reserve Guard and the Special Task Force were involved in the operation launched from five places – Tarrem, Usoor and Pamed in Bijapur, and Minpa and Narsapuram in Sukma.
Initially five bodies were recovered from the site of the encounter, but authorities had anticipated the toll would rise in a few hours.
Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel said that out of the injured personnel, seven were admitted to a hospital in Raipur and were out of danger. The chief minister added that the firing went on for four hours.
Meanwhile, Central Reserve Police Force Director General Kuldiep Singh reached the state to take stock of the situation.
Shah speaks to Chhattisgarh CM
Union Home Minister Amit Shah on Sunday spoke to Baghel, who apprised him about the situation. “I received a call from Home Minister Amit Shah,” Baghel told reporters, according to ANI. “He has sent CRPF director general to the state. I will return to Chhattisgarh in the evening.”
Earlier, Shah said in a tweet that the valour of the security personnel will never be forgotten. The home minister added that the government will “continue its fight against these enemies of peace and progress”.
Speaking to reporters in Guwahati, Shah said that a search operation was underway in Bijapur, ANI reported. “Both sides have suffered losses...Our jawans have lost their lives,” Shah said. “I pay tributes to them. I want to assure their families that their sacrifice will not go in vain.”
“He [Shah] is returning [from Assam] after addressing one out of the three rallies he was supposed to address,” Bharatiya Janata Party’s co-in charge for the poll-bound state Jitendra Singh said.
President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have also offered condolences to the families of the deceased.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi paid homage and said that the country owed an “enormous debt of gratitude” to the security personnel who were killed, ANI reported.
Earlier on Saturday, Baghel too expressed his sadness at the incident. “The martyrdom of our security forces will not go in vain,” he tweeted.
The BJP has, however, criticised the Chhattisgarh chief minister for campaigning in Assam in spite of the incident. “He is camping here with government staff and misusing government machinery,” BJP’s MP from Assam’s Magaldoi constituency, Dilip Saikia told ANI. “Election Commission should investigate this matter.”
On March 23, five security forces personnel were killed and 14 others injured in Chhattisgarh’s Narayanpur district after suspected Maoists allegedly attacked their bus with an improvised explosive device. The officials were part of the District Reserve Guard. The explosion took place when the security personnel were returning from an anti-Maoist operation.