Imphal/Guwahati/New Delhi: In one of the worst attacks suffered by the Indian Army in a decade, at least 18 soldiers were killed and 11 injured on Thursday when militants ambushed their convoy in Manipur's Chandel district, officials said. Naga rebel outfit NSCN-K claimed responsibility.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, Indian Army chief General Dalbir Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Home Minister Rajnatah Singh, among others, condemned the attack, for which the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang, which recently abrogated its ceasefire, claimed responsibility.
Earlier reports said 20 soldiers were killed, but army officials later revised the toll to 18.
According to 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. when militants used improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) while 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.
"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 soldiers retaliated but the militants managed to escape.
In a statement issued to the media on Thursday evening, the NSCN-K said: "An elite strike unit of Naga Army, Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) carried out the ambush today (Thursday)."
Although there are several militant outfits in Manipur, most of them operate under the NSCN's shadow, particularly in Naga-dominated areas like Chandel.
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 termed the attack "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 tweeted.
Parrikar, Rajnath Singh, Gen. 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.
"Those who committed the cowardly act will be brought to book", he said, adding the army will continue to work towards bringing peace and normalcy to Manipur.
He also conveyed the "deepest condolence" to the families of the killed soldiers.
Gandhi called the attack dastardly and cowardly, and hoped that the killers of the "vanguards of our national integrity" will face justice.
Rajnath Singh said that he was "deeply distressed" at the news of the attack and asserted that the government would not allow the sacrifice of the solders to go waste.
Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju 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," he 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 Arunachal Pradesh's Tirap district. On May 3, seven Assam Rifles troopers and one personnel of the Territorial Army were killed in another ambush in Nagaland's Mon district by 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, Brig. S.K. Chatterji (retd.) 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," Chatterji told IANS.
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.
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 and central governments, the Coordination Committee, an umbrella group of six major militant outfits, has been rejecting the offer for peace talks.