NEW DELHI — At least 23 Indian security forces were killed in an ambush by Maoist militants in the central state of Chattisgarh, officials said on Sunday, reviving concerns around a decades-old insurgency that appeared to have been largely contained in recent years.
A large force of Indian security personnel had been carrying out a clearance operation in a densely forested area on the edges of the Bijapur district when they were ambushed by the insurgents on Saturday in a firefight that lasted four hours.
Avinash Mishra, the deputy superintendent of police in Bijapur, said an additional 31 security personnel were wounded in the attack.
He said that the militants, often referred to as Naxalites, also suffered heavy casualties, adding that one insurgent’s body remained at the site while the rest were cleared by tractors. Mr. Mishra said the insurgents had managed to seize the dead soldiers’ weapons.
Amit Shah, the Indian minister of home affairs, the official responsible for domestic security matters, confirmed the deaths, and cut short election campaigning in northeastern India to fly back to New Delhi and lead the response, including a search for the attackers.
“The blood of our soldiers, in defense of the nation, will not go to waste,” Mr. Shah said. “Our fight against the Naxalites will continue with more determination and vigor.”
The insurgents, who trace their roots to communist politics in the 1960s, use violence against the state in the name of championing the cause of India’s poor and marginalized. Their reach was once so widespread, and their attacks so frequent, that in 2006, India’s prime minister declared them the country’s “single biggest internal-security challenge.”
However, the Indian government has shrunk the space where the insurgents operate over the past decade by combining military operations involving tens of thousands of paramilitary forces with economic packages to the areas the insurgents used as a base for activity and recruitment. Where the insurgents once operated in about 200 districts at their peak, they are were confined to less than 50 districts last year, according to official figures.
The government has hunted insurgent leaders, killing a large number or forcing them to surrender, and insurgent attacks have declined in frequency and potency.
Nevertheless, the group continues to launch hit-and-run attacks, ambushing security forces in friendly terrain and inflicting casualties in deadly battles. Before the attack on Saturday, 56 people, including security forces, insurgents and civilians, had been killed in Maoist violence this year, according to data by the South Asia Terrorism portal.