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By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's plans to launch a major offensive against Maoist rebels in the country's heartlands could jeopardise much-needed humanitarian operations in the impoverished area, the European Commission has warned.
Government officials have signalled that an assault against insurgents is imminent in the central state of Chhattisgarh -- the epicentre of violence between Maoist fighters, security forces and pro-government militias since 2005.
The Maoist violence -- estimated to have caused 600 to 700 deaths annually and the displacement 100,000 civilians -- has spread to 182 of India's 602 districts and has been declared as the country's single biggest internal security threat.
But the European Commission humanitarian aid department (ECHO), which has been funding relief assistance for thousands of villagers caught up in the violence since 2007, said it was concerned that its work would be at risk if fighting intensified.
"It can become too dangerous because of on-going fighting for our partners to access and reach out to the villages," Maria Joao Ralha, ECHO's desk officer for India, told Reuters by phone from Brussels.
"It can also limit access as parties involved in the conflict may become too nervous and may not want humanitarians working there so villagers would not be able to receive the healthcare that our partners are providing them," she said late on Thursday.
Over the last two years, the ECHO has provided 1.5 million euros (1.35 million pounds) to foreign aid agencies to carry out primary healthcare activities in the under-developed, mineral rich state.
Aid workers venture into remote Maoist-controlled forest areas to reach tribal villages where there is a high prevalence of malaria and malnutrition.
Forests in the worst-hit districts of Dantewara and Bijapur are often infested with mines and improvised explosive devices, say aid workers, adding that they have to walk for up to six hours to access some of the poorest villages.
The state structure remains weak and the government has virtually no capacity to deliver even the basic amenities to people in the area, said a recent European Commission report.
"It is virtually impossible to engage health professionals to work outside these districts' capitals, due to the very harsh living conditions exacerbated by the conflict," said the report.
The rebels are accused of killings, forced recruitment and widespread extortion, while vigilantes and security forces have conducted arbitrary arrests, torture and killings, say activists.
(Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Alex Richardson)