Gadchiroli, Maharashtra: The Naxalite attack at Bhamragad in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district, in which 17 policemen were killed, could have been an attempt by the Maoists to seek attention during election time, top state officials said on Friday.

Hard-hit: A commando stands guard at the spot in Gadchiroli where the attack by Naxalites killed 17 policemen. Satish Bate / Hindustan Times

Friday’s attack, which came a day after the cabinet committee on security gave the go-ahead for a massive strike involving nearly 75,000 paramilitary forces against the Naxalites, could also be a reaction to the Union government move, said Surinder Kumar, inspector general, Nagpur.

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“It could have been an attempt to create panic just ahead of the elections," said Maharashtra home minister Jayant Patil, who was in Gadchiroli when the bodies of the security personnel were brought to the district police headquarters, where hundreds of villagers and top police officials paid tribute to them. The district is situated in the southeastern corner of Maharashtra, and borders Chhattisgarh in the east and Andhra Pradesh in the south and south-west, both states that have Naxalite strongholds.

Patil admitted that the joint combing operations by the states have been stopped for a while in Maharashtra, in view of the state elections.

According to police officials, on Thursday morning a team of 20 police personnel left Lahiri sub-post after receiving a tip that some Maoists were hiding in the forest 5km away. “They had informed the Bhamragad police centre and reached the spot to clear the area. While they were returning, the Naxals, more than 200 of them, attacked the last group of policemen. It was a well-planned attack from all sides," an official in the anti-Naxalite operation force said. The official, who requested anonymity, said the incident could have been avoided if police headquarters could have sent more forces in helicopters in time to the spot.

The Naxals killed the policemen after a 5-hour gun battle. Although the police said there were casualties among the Maoists too, they could not give details. “Usually, the Naxals do not leave their companions’ dead bodies at the battle spot. We are sending special teams to make the assessment," Maharashtra director general of police S.S. Virk said.

This is the fourth such incident this year in Maharashtra.