(Edited from AP, Panta) Maoist insurgents claiming to fight for India’s rural poor killed at least 76 soldiers Tuesday in a series of carefully planned ambushes in the forests of eastern India, underscoring the rebels’ strength despite a government offensive.

(Edited from AP, Panta) Maoist insurgents claiming to fight for India’s rural poor killed at least 76 soldiers Tuesday in a series of carefully planned ambushes in the forests of eastern India, underscoring the rebels’ strength despite a government offensive.

 

The attack by hundreds of Maoists in a rebel stronghold in Chhattisgarh state was the deadliest by the militants against government forces in their 43-year insurgency.

 

The rebels launched the initial attack early in the morning, firing on a group of soldiers as they returned to base from a two-day patrol in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada forests, S.K. Pillai, the federal home secretary, told reporters in New Delhi. More soldiers were killed when they stepped on land mines the Maoists planted throughout the ambush zone, he said.

 

R.K. Vij, the inspector general of the Chhattisgarh police, said 17 more soldiers who went to recover the bodies were killed in land mine explosions.

 

More than 500 guerrillas – known as Naxalites – were involved in the attacks, said Vij. He said 76 soldiers were killed and seven wounded, three critically. The government found no rebel bodies.

 

Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, the nation’s top law enforcement official, said the soldiers were part of a joint operation involving state forces and paramilitary fighters.

 

“But something has gone very wrong. They seemed to have walked into a trap set by the Naxalites. Casualties are quite high and I am deeply shocked,” he said.

 

Few other details were available from the isolated, thickly forested area. The rebels rarely speak to the press.

 

Inspired by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, the rebels have tapped into the rural poor’s growing anger at being left out of the country’s economic gains and are now present in 20 of the country’s 28 states.

 

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