By Ashok Sharma Associated Press
NEW DELHI — Maoist rebels blew up a bus filled with police and civilians today as it drove through central India, killing at least 35 people, police said.
Nineteen civilians and 16 police officers were killed in the attack that took place in the state of Chhattisgarh, which has been the site of fierce fighting between the Maoists and government forces in recent months, said Amarnath Upadhyaya, a senior police officer.
The bus was hit by a rebel land mine, said Rajender Kumar Vij, another top police official in the area.
Police often ride in civilian buses, apparently in an attempt to avoid rebel attack — hoping that the insurgents would not target such vehicles for fear of losing local support.
Amarnath Upadhyaya, another senior police officer, said the front of the bus was destroyed and 40 to 60 people were on board.
The Press Trust of India reported that at least 40 people were killed in the attack.
Television images from the scene showed the bus completely wrecked by the blast and the bodies and police officers’ weapons strewn across the road in Dantewada district, about 350 miles south of Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh state.
India’s Home Secretary G.K. Pillai did not give a death toll but said seven people were taken to a hospital in serious condition.
Attacks by the Maoists, known as Naxalites, have been increasing in recent months.
The rebels ambushed a paramilitary patrol last month, killing 76 troops, and kidnapped and killed six villagers over the weekend, alleging they were police informants.
The rebels, who have tapped into the rural poor’s growing anger at being left out of the country’s economic gains, are now present in 20 of the country’s 28 states and have an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 fighters, according to India’s home ministry.
Last year, the government announced its “Operation Green Hunt” offensive aimed at flushing the militants out of their forest hide-outs.
Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram says the government would only hold talks with the rebels if they shun violence and there were no preconditions, such as a halt to the government’s offensive.