NEW DELHI (AP) — About 200 suspected Maoist rebels set off a land mine and opened fire on a convoy of cars carrying local leaders and supporters of India's ruling Congress party in eastern India, killing at least 17 people and wounding 24 others, police said.
Senior police officer M. Gupta said the attack occurred Saturday in the Sukma area, about 215 miles (345 kilometers) south of Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh state.
The convoy was attacked in a forested area as the Congress members were returning to the state capital after attending a party rally, said Ram Niwas, a state police official.
Two state party leaders and five police officers were among those killed, said R. K. Vij, another police officer. Other victims were party supporters.
"We are devastated," said Congress party President Sonia Gandhi, who denounced what she called a "dastardly attack" on the country's democratic values.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the government would take firm action against the perpetrators.
Police identified one of those killed as Mahendra Karma, a Congress leader in Chhattisgarh state who founded a local militia, the Salwa Judum, to combat the Maoist rebels. The anti-rebel militia had to be reined in after it was accused of atrocities against tribals — indigenous people at the bottom of India's rigid social ladder.
The wounded Congress party members, among them 83-year-old Vidya Charan Shukla, a former federal minister, were taken to a local hospital, police said.
The suspected rebels also took away a local party leader, Nand Kumar Patel, and his son, Vij said.
The Press Trust of India news agency said the attackers blocked the road by felling trees.
Vij said the suspected rebels triggered a land mine blast that blew up one of the cars in the convoy. The attackers then fired at the Congress party leaders and their supporters before fleeing.
Police recovered 16 bodies from the scene, and 25 wounded people were hospitalized, Vij said. One of the wounded later died in the hospital, he said.
The Congress party is the main opposition party in the state. It has stepped up political activities ahead of state elections scheduled to be held by December.
The rebels, known as Naxalites, have been fighting the central government for more than four decades, demanding land and jobs for tenant farmers and the poor. They take their name from the West Bengal village of Naxalbari where the movement began in 1967. The fighters were inspired by Chinese Communist revolutionary leader Mao Zedong and have drawn support from displaced tribal populations opposed to corporate exploitation and official corruption.
Prime Minister Singh has called the rebels India's biggest internal security threat. They are now present in 20 of India's 28 states and have thousands of fighters, according to the Home Ministry.
In 2010, Maoist rebels killed 27 paramilitary troops in an ambush in a dense forest in the Narayanpur district of Chhattisgarh state.