BHUBANESHWAR: Suspected Maoist blew up a bus carrying police officers in a convoy in eastern India today, killing nine of them as the country’s home minister repeated his offer to hold peace talks with the group.

Another 10 police officers, specially trained for fighting the insurgents, were wounded in the land mine attacked on a hilly road near Mantriamba, a village 525 km south of Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Orissa state, informed Deputy Inspector General of Police Prakash Mishra.

No one claimed responsibility for the blast, but police blamed the insurgents. “Suspected rebels detonated the land mine as the convoy of three buses carrying nearly 70 police officers arrived in the area to clear it of the Maoist presence,” Mishra told The Associated Press. “The first vehicle hit by the blast was completely wrecked, killing nine police officers on the spot,” he added. “Three of the wounded were in serious condition,” Mishra informed. He said the police officers in the other two vehicles exchanged gunfire with the attackers who managed to escape in the forested area.

The police officers were taking part in the government’s “Operation Green Hunt” aimed at flushing the militants out of their forest hide-outs.

The attack came on a day India’s Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram visited a rebel stronghold in the neighbouring state of West Bengal where he reviewed the progress of the offensive, launched in February.

Today, Chidambaram reiterated the government’s offer that it would hold talks with the rebels if they abandon violence. “In fact, Naxals are cowards. Why are they hiding in forests? We have invited them for talks after they abjure violence. If they really want to discuss problems of the people, they are welcome to talk,” he told reporters after meeting security officials in Lalgarh area. Suspected rebels moved into the Lalgarh region last year after driving out poorly armed local police and seized control of villages.