Mourning, with anger, for 18 policemen massacred

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Gadchiroli:  The somber bugle and gun salute signals the final rites for the 18 policemen who were killed in the line of duty, ambushed by 200 Naxals on Thursday in the deep forests of Gadchiroli.

In this part of North Eastern Maharashtra, anger overshadows the pain, shared equally by families who lost their men, and the villagers who witnessed the horrific violence. A five-hour gun battle where the police stood virtually no chance, outnumbered as it was by five militants for every one of their own.

Constable Nooruddin Hakim was 28, and recently engaged. His uncle says, "It's the government's weakness, even though they had information. He is my brother's son. This should not have happened. I totally blame the state." And then he breaks down.

The policemen were on patrol duty in the area. There were 40 of them. Then suddenly, the Naxals attacked. "We had seen and heard of families of martyrs. Now we have one in our family," says Kumudini Dhote, whose brother-in-law was among those killed. Someone tries to console her by saying he died for his country. None of that matters, she says, in a controlled voice.

Joining the families at the state funeral, hundreds of villagers from the area, many of whom have supported the Naxals. They may not have changed sides entirely, but today, they say, their respects and prayers are with the families who've lost lives.

The big challenge for the police is going to be lifting the morale of a force which has faced three major attacks this year, in which 50 policemen have died.

The Maharashtra government says the Naxals involved in Thursday's attack crossed into the state from Chhattisgarh. Naxals have been asking for the state elections to be boycotted, and they planned the massacre as a show of strength.

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Survivors say they will continue their fight. Many of them are tribals for whom joining anti-Naxal operations was a risk. But disenchanted with Naxal ideology, they say they won't surrender.

Like constable Rajendra Saiyam who is recovering from Thursday's encounter in a Nagpur hospital. "I will go back and fight," he says.

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