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By Matthias Williams
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India plans to launch a large scale offensive against Maoist rebels in its insurgency-riddled eastern and central states, senior police officials said on Thursday, against a backdrop of rising attacks.
Underscoring what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called one of the gravest threats to India's security, Maoists killed 17 policemen in western Maharashtra state on Thursday, days after they beheaded a police officer in eastern Jharkhand state.
The insurgents, who say they are waging war on behalf of the poor and the landless against the state, have taken effective control of large swathes of the countryside, scaring off potential investors while in control of land rich in minerals.
Hundreds are killed in Maoist violence each year, as forces clash with rebels and civilians get caught in the crossfire. They also extort money from businesses and industry, and have opposed construction of a steel plant in West Bengal state.
Local media reports said the government will soon deploy tens of thousands of security forces in a crackdown that could help unlock billions of dollars of investment in Maoist-hit areas.
A home ministry spokesman declined to confirm these reports, but senior police officials in three of the worst affected states told Reuters they had been asked to prepare for a strike.
"Everything is ready. We will launch the operation all of a sudden, but the plan will be carried out by the home ministry as per their directive," said Neelmani, the additional director general of police in eastern Bihar state.
Senior police officials in Chhattisgarh said 40,000 police are on standby for an upcoming assault in remote jungle areas, and are waiting to be reinforced by elite paramilitary troops.
A Maoist spokesman, who gave his name as Amarjeet Advani, said the rebels have set up camps to train cadres in guerrilla warfare and handle sophisticated weapons to counter any strikes.
Singh said last month India's campaign so far against the Maoists had failed to produce results.
On Thursday, Singh chaired a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security to discuss a plan to take on insurgency, state-run television said, citing unnamed official sources.
Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said this week the government was willing to talk to the Maoists about issues such as poverty and corruption that are often blamed for stoking the insurgency, but insisted the rebels must first stop violence.
India's air force has asked for permission from the government to return fire if attacked by Maoists.
"It is not like Rambo," Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik said.
"We are only trying to protect our helicopters and our men and women who fly those helicopters."
The beheading of the police officer, whose body was found on Tuesday, drew comparisons in local media between the Maoists and executions by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and reignited a debate on how best to deal with the insurgency.
An editorial in the Indian Express daily said the government was capable of defeating the Maoists in battle, but would struggle to win over hearts and minds needed for permanent peace.
"India does not have the capacity to conduct the vital endgame of counter-insurgencies," it said.
(Additional reporting by Jatindra Dash and Sujeet Kumar; Editing by Rina Chandran and Sugita Katyal)

Reuters