More than 24 hours after Maoist rebels mowed down 17 policemen in one of the deadliest attacks in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, combing operations by BSF and state police continued even as people on Friday bade a farewell to the martyrs.
"Combing operations are going on but no arrests have so far been made," Director General of Police S S Virk said.
Hundreds of civilians gathered at the Parade ground here in a spontaneous outpouring of grief and respect for the policemen who laid down their lives in the line of duty combating home-bred Maoist terror as the government vowed to crush the Naxalites.
The fragile peace of Gadchiroli was broken yesterday as the forest adjoining Lahiri in Bhamragad tehsil reverberated with gunfire when a police contingent, also comprising commandos of the elite C-60 anti-Naxal force, came under a barrage of Maoist bullets.
On a terrain suited for hit-and-run tactics often employed by the Maoist guerrillas, the policemen put up a brave resistance, but hugely outnumbered, 17 of them were killed and two wounded.
"The Naxalites had ostensibly come after a lot of preparation and surrounded us from all sides. All of them were heavily armed," one of the survivors told the media.
"We had gone to the villages adjoining Lahiri police station on patrol when we came under sudden attack. We retaliated and the encounter went on for four hours. Several of our people lost their lives," he said.
Jayant Patil, minister of home, his deputy Nitin Raut and state police chief were present at the Parade ground to pay homage to the slain policemen.
"Our battle against Naxals will continue. The attack has made our resolve to tackle the Naxal menace even more strong," said Patil after the buglars had played the Last Post and the large crowds that had gathered in defiance of the Maoist terror in the red bastion began thinning.
"We will give a befitting reply to the Naxalites in the language they understand," said an angry Raut.
Patil sought to put to rest speculations about deferment of the October 13 Assembly poll in Naxalite-affected districts, saying "there will be no rescheduling."
The minister said 35 companies of para military forces had been deployed in districts having significant Naxalite presence to assist the local police in ensuring peace during the polls.
Dismissing insinuations in the media about the delay in reaching reinforcements to the scene of encounter, Patil said there was nothing deliberate about it as Maoists had placed trees and logs to block the movement of rescue teams.
Virk said that no arrests have been made so far in connection with the incident despite a contingent of about 80 BSF personnel besides those of the state police combing the dense forests.
"Combing operations are going on but no arrests have so far been made," he said, adding no helicopters had been pressed into service for giving aerial cover to the ground forces or for reconnaissance.
Meanwhile, politicians have been advised against flying over the Naxal-hit Gadchiroli district lest they would come under attack from the left extremists believed still to be hiding in the jungles of the district and contiguous areas in Chhattisgarh.
"Naxals may strike politicians flying over the region.
It's better they avoid flying over these areas as Maoists can go to any extent to disrupt elections," N S Jagtap, spokesperson for Gadchiroli police, said.
When asked about the compensation to the dependents of the slain policemen, Jayant Patil said it would be as per the new policy post 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks.
Though he did not quantify the compensation, the legal heirs of security personnel martyred in the 26/11 terror strike were given Rs 25 lakh besides petrol pumps or LPG dealerships. AP