18 Feb 2002
At least 138 dead, Mangalsen torched, Bank looted
KATHMANDU, Feb 17: The first day of this spring season dawned on Nepal with the deadliest ever attack by Maoist rebels on government security forces in Achham district, killing at least 138 people, mostly security personnel.
Hundreds, possibly more than a thousand, armed rebels launched the attack a little after Saturday midnight in Mangalsen, the district headquarters of Achham, and the nearby Sanfebagar airport, government officials said.
According to reports from various security sources in Kathmandu and in Nepalgunj, at least 129 people died in the raids. But the Defence Ministry has confirmed the deaths of only 102 persons in Achham, including 57 soldiers, 49 policemen and five civilians.
Among those killed by rebels are the Chief District Officer of Achham Mohan Singh Khatri, the district intelligence officer Lok Raj Upreti and his wife, a postman and a local photographer. The brunt of the rebel attack fell both on Mangalsen and Sanfebagar.
Another report from Dhangadi said 27 policemen were killed and several others injured in the rebel attack on Sanfebagar airport. Meanwhile, the state-owned Nepal Television quoting locals said in a late night news bulletin that around 40 heads of unidentified people were found scattered across the fields near Sanfebagar airport. It is believed that the heads were of the rebels.
Many houses and government offices were torched by the rebels, who also reportedly thwarted initial attempts by security forces to rush in reinforcements.
The Maoist rebels were wielding "sophisticated guns" that they looted from a Dang garrison of the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) on November 24, 2001. Highly placed police and army sources said that the rebels also looted Rs 20 million from a Mangalsen bank. They also attacked the local jail and set free all the inmates, most of whom were alleged Maoist sympathisers.
Most of the injured have been airlifted to Nepalgunj, while 10 of them were flown to Kathmandu for treatment today.
The Defence Ministry statement claimed that the Maoist side too suffered heavy casualties in the overnight encounter in Mangalsen. The rebels are believed to have carried away their men who were killed or injured in the incident. Three bodies of the rebels were recovered at the site, said the Defence Ministry, adding, "The army personnel fought … courageously till the end."
The losses suffered by government forces in Achham are the largest casualty in a single day inflicted by the Maoist rebels since the beginning of their insurgency in 1996. It comes just days before parliament is set to ratify the emergency rule imposed on the kingdom on November 26 last year.
Among the security officials killed in Mangalsen include officials below the rank of Superintendent of Police, and an army lieutenant. A Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) survived the attack, according to sources. The Mangalsen attack came at around 1 a.m. Sunday morning and lasted for several hours, security officials in Kathmandu said quoting witnesses at the scene. They raided the Sanfebagar airport at around the same time.
The Defence Ministry statement said, "The terrorists set off huge fires in Mangalsen before launching the attack…and according to the available information the army personnel and the officials fought till the last."
It added that the reinforcements were dispatched to the district headquarters which was covered with thick plumes of smoke till late in the afternoon today. The security forces have started massive search operations in and around the district headquarters. The Home Ministry said that the Maoists also carried away some arms from Mangalsen. A report from Dhangadi, meanwhile, said that a helicopter carrying reinforcements was forced to land several kilometres away from Mangalsen after the rebels opened fire at it around 9:30 a.m.
Meanwhile, Ram Bahadur Bista, an MP from Achham, flayed what he said was complacency shown by the government. "We had repeatedly asked the prime minister to upgrade the strength of the security forces in Achham, but he turned a deaf ear to our suggestions," a disturbed Bista told The Kathmandu Post Sunday night.