India is grappling with increasing Maoist violence fueled by a pandemic

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© Reuters. Relatives mourn the coffin of security guards killed in an attack by Maoist fighters during a wreath-laying ceremony in Bijapur

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From Rupam Jain

(Reuters) – India’s Interior Minister Amit Shah called off an election rally in the east on Monday to drive to the mineral-rich central state of Chhattisgarh, where Maoist guerrillas killed 22 members of the security forces over the weekend.

In addition to the deaths, 30 other Indian police and paramilitary forces were wounded in a four-hour gun battle with Maoist rebels on Saturday, the deadliest ambush of its kind in four years.

On Monday, Shah traveled to Chhattisgarh to pay tribute to the injured, who pay tribute to those killed.

The Maoists, also known as Naxals, have been leading an armed uprising against the government for decades. Its leaders say they are fighting for the poorest who have not benefited from the boom in Asia’s third largest economy.

Shah told reporters the government will “not tolerate such bloodshed and will receive an appropriate response to end the ongoing struggle against the Maoists”.

Security experts said the recent attack by Maoist rebels, believed to be India’s greatest threat to internal security, has forced the right-wing government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to re-evaluate counterinsurgency operations against the ultra-left militants who have been able to recruit new ones increase followers during the pandemic.

“In recent years, the Maoists have had the opportunity to regroup in their core region of dominance,” said Uddipan Mukherjee, a joint director of the government agency, the Ordnance Factory Board. He has researched Maoist strategy for more than a decade.

Mukherjee and others with expert knowledge said the pandemic had allowed the uprising to recruit more to its cause.

“We have intelligence reports that Maoist leaders have recruited hundreds of new foot soldiers during the pandemic, including women who live in the forests and are disclosing details of security patrols,” said a New Delhi-based bureaucrat who oversees homeland security Country monitored.

“The pandemic has made the domestic movement of Maoist leaders much easier,” said the senior official on condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Chhattisgarh, one of the fastest developing states in India, has 28 varieties of important minerals, including diamonds and gold, according to a government website. The state has 16% of India’s coal reserves and large reserves of iron ore and bauxite.

(Additional coverage of Jatindra in Bhubaneshwar, Saurabh Sharma in Lucknow; editing by Barbara Lewis)

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