Imphal/Guwahati/New Delhi, (IANS) At least 18 soldiers were killed and 11 injured on Thursday when militants ambushed an Indian Army convoy in Manipur’s Chandel district, in one of the worst attacks on the army in over a decade, officials said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and Indian Army chief General Dalbir Singh, among others, condemned the attack.
Earlier reports said 20 soldiers were killed, but Indian Army officials later put the toll at 18.
According to Indian Army sources, the team that was attacked belonged to 6 Dogra Regiment and was an administrative convoy moving out of its location.
The attack occurred between Paralong and Charong villages around 8.30 a.m.
The militants used Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and also opened heavy fire at the four-vehicle convoy.
Most of the bodies were charred, officials said.
Those injured were airlifted to Leimakhong military hospital near Imphal, while a reinforcement party was rushed to the spot for combing operations to nab the militants.
“One of the vehicles – probably the first vehicle in the convoy – which was hit first by the RPG caught fire immediately,” a defence spokesman said. The security forces retaliated but the militants managed to escape.
The army suspects that Manipur-based militant outfit Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) was behind the incident but they did not rule out the involvement of the NSCN-K, which has a substantial presence in the district and had recently abrogated its ceasefire agreement with the Indian government.
Although there are several militant outfits in Manipur, most of them operate under the shadow of the NSCN-K, particularly in Naga-dominated areas like Chandel.
Highly placed sources said advanced weapons were used in the attack and this was a matter of concern.
According to reports, the area has been on the boil after a woman was allegedly killed by troopers of the paramilitary Assam Rifles.
Reports also said there was a shutdown in Chandel over the incident.
Prime Minister Modi said the attack was very “distressing”.
“Today’s mindless attack in Manipur is very distressing. I bow to each and every soldier who has sacrificed his life for the nation,” Modi wrote on his Twitter account.
Defence Minister Parrikar, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, General Dalbir Singh and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval met in the national capital on Thursday to evaluate the situation after the attack.
The defence minister termed it a “cowardly act” and promised action.
Parrikar said “those who committed the cowardly act will be brought to book”, adding that the army will continue to work towards bringing peace and normalcy to Manipur.
He also conveyed the “deepest condolence” to the families of the soldiers who lost their lives.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi called the attack dastardly and cowardly, and hoped that the killers of the “vanguards of our national integrity” will be brought to book at the earliest.
Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju, while condemning the incident, said the government was collecting details on the attack.
“Information on the attack is being collected, after that we would be able to say what exactly happened,” Rijiju told reporters.
“It is a very sad incident,” he added.
Insiders, meanwhile, said it was a major intelligence failure.
According to officials, this was the worst attack on the Indian Army in over a decade in which so many personnel lost their lives.
Lately, a surge in such attacks has been noticed in the northeast.
On April 2, three soldiers were killed in an ambush by NSCN-K in Tirap district in Arunachal Pradesh. On May 3, seven Assam Rifles troopers and one personnel of the Territorial Army were killed in another ambush in Mon district in Nagaland by the joint forces of the newly floated United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia comprising NSCN-K), ULFA, Kamatapur Liberation Organisation and NDFB-Songbijit.
Defence expert and ex-serviceman Brig. S.K. Chatterji said the attack indicates external interference in the area was on the rise.
“There are reports that a month and a half back, leaders of these groups travelled to China. It can be a desperate step to disturb peace, specially since the new government has been firm on the boundary issues,” Brig. Chatterji told IANS.
Meanwhile, Manipur’s principal secretary (Home) J. Suresh Babu also suspected the involvement of Manipuri rebel outfit PLA in the deadly attack.
“It seems the PLA, with support from the KYKL (Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup) attacked the army personnel. We are still waiting for more inputs to come in. As the area is remote and not easily accessible, getting up-to-date information becomes a little tough,” he told IANS over phone.
KYKL is a Manipuri rebel organisation with Meitei ethnic roots.
Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh held emergency meetings with Deputy Chief Minister Gaikhangam Gangmei, who also holds the home portfolio, Chief Secretary P.C. Lawmkunga and Director General of Police Shahid Ahmad.
Ibobi Singh and Gangmei condemned the attack and asked the security forces to nab the terrorists at any cost, a Manipur government information department official said.
Manipur, which shares a 398-km border with Myanmar, has about 40 militant outfits.
While more than 20 armed groups have ceasefire agreements with the state government and the Centre, the Coordination Committee, an umbrella group of six major militant outfits, has been rejecting the offer for peace talks.