After foiling resistance by Maoist-backed tribals, security forces on Friday resumed their push cautiously towards Lalgarh, a stronghold of the Maoists, sweeping the roads for mines as the agitators blew up a bridge to stall their movement. The forces moved out from Pirakata where they had halted on Thursday night and resumed the march towards Lalgarh, 26 km away, in a pincer movement from Pirrakuli and Sarenda in adjacent Bankura district, a senior police officer said.
They used mine detectors to sweep the roads and forests before driving ahead in heavy vehicles from Pirrakuli, 10 km from Pirakata. An IAF helicopter made a sortie over Lalgarh, where Maoist leaders, including a key functionary Kisanji, were believed to be holed up, dropping leaflets asking the people not to allow themselves to be used as human shields. The tribals under the People's Committee Against Police Atrocities blocked all the roads leading to Lalgarh which has come under their control with the police having withdrawn from camps earlier fearing the capture of their weapons.
Roads at Dahijuri and Dherua were dug up and trees felled to obstruct the advance by armed police and Central security forces, while a bridge over a river at Binpur was blown up, the police official said. The security forces planned to set up base camps at Goaltore, Salboni and Jhargram, besides in Pirakata, he said.
The battle to recapture Lalgarh from Maoists began in right earnest on Thursday as the police and central forces stormed the area smashing a human shield of tribal agitators with a barrage of teargas shells and lathi-charges.
A 600-strong mob of tribals armed with lathis, axes, spears, bows and arrows blocked the road when the security forces arrived and shouted at the police asking them to apologise for alleged atrocities, a PTI correspondent on the spot reported.
A police officer warned the tribals over microphone to disperse within two minutes, following which the armed police, the CRPF and the riot police lobbed a volley of teargas shells and made a lathi-charge dispersing the tribals under the banner of People's Committee Against Police Atrocities in 10 minutes.
The police then proceeded cautiously up the road to Pirrakula, eight km from Lalgarh, making house-to-house searches while people caught on the road were allowed to pass with their hands raised in the air.
The operation was then halted for the night, IGP (Law and Order) Raj Kanojia told PTI from Kolkata. The police and central forces did not want to cross the Jhitka jungle beyond Pirrakula at night as it was a Maoist-dominated area. After moving out from Pirakata, the police and central forces met with little resistance as they swept through Mahida, Dharampur and Pirrakula villages.
Police said it was one of nearly 100 blockades that the securitymen would have to face en route to Lalgarh. Most residents of the villages fled their homes before the arrival of the security forces.
Home Secretary Ardhendu Sen told reporters in Kolkata that the objective of the operation was to clear 18 police station areas in Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore districts of Maoist occupation. "We have to free these areas of Maoists."
"We estimate about 100 armed Maoist cadres are at Lalgarh. Their leader Kishanji is possibly there", he said. Asked if the operation would continue during the night, Sen said "it is extremely tough." He delined to say how long the operation would take. "The operation will get tougher and we have to be prepared to face attacks and ambushes," he said.
Asked if it was a joint operation with a neighbouring state, the Home Secretary said "it is a joint strike but I can't name the state." To another question if the COBRA unit, specially trained to fight Maoists, would be used, he did not answer. "We have decided to keep an IAF helicopter as standby to transport any injured to hospital at short notice," he said.
He said that the issue of Maoists at Lalgarh was likely to figure in talks between Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Delhi.