NEW DELHI (AP) — The Indian government on Tuesday ruled out peace talks with Maoist rebels who killed 24 people in a daring attack over the weekend in an eastern state.
Indian Junior Home Minister R.P.N. Singh said the government had offered to hold talks with the insurgents in the past, but no one came forward. The Maoists instead demanded that the government first withdraw thousands of paramilitary soldiers deployed to fight the rebels in a number of states.
"The time for talking is over," Singh told the CNN-IBN television news channel. "I think that's how we need to review the situation."
The rebels, known as Naxalites, have been fighting the central government for more than four decades, demanding land and jobs for tenant farmers and the poor. Since 2005, more than 6,000 people — including civilians, security troops and the rebels themselves — have died in Maoist violence across the country, according to data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management.
Singh's comments came as thousands of troops searched for the attackers in the densely forested stronghold of the Maoist rebels in Chhattisgarh state. The ambush on Saturday came despite claims by the government that it has greatly weakened the guerrilla insurgency it termed the nation's greatest internal security threat.
The Maoist attack targeted Congress party politicians returning from an election campaign event with the indigenous tribal community in a rebel stronghold.
Four state leaders of the Congress party and eight police officers were among the 24 people killed. The other victims were party supporters.
The state leaders included Mahendra Karma, a Congress official who founded the much-criticized Salwa Judum militia to combat the rebels. The Salwa Judum had to be reined in after it was accused of atrocities against the tribal people it claimed to be protecting.
The BBC said it received a note late Monday from the rebels saying they carried out the attack to protest the government's "anti-people policies."
The BBC also said the rebels apologized for the deaths of some innocent people in the attack.
Also Tuesday, Indian Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh called for a "very tough security and police action in the areas highly affected" by the insurgency.
He said the government's focus was on development in insurgency-hit areas and addressing problems tribal people face, particularly relating to land acquisition.
The rebels have ambushed police, destroyed government offices and abducted government officials. They have blown up train tracks, attacked prisons to free their comrades and stolen weapons from police and paramilitary warehouses.
The insurgency began in 1967 as a network of leftwing ideologues and young recruits in the village of Naxalbari outside Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal state. The Naxalites are now estimated to have 30,000 fighters and have pledged to violently overthrow the Indian government.
They control vast swaths of the so-called Red Belt in central and eastern India, where troops and officials rarely venture. The rebels are thought to operate in 20 of India's 28 states.