Indian women stand in a queue to cast their votes in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, the center of India’s four-decade Maoist insurgency, on April 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

Indian police are accused of raping and sexually assaulting at least 16 tribal women in multiple villages, India’s human rights watchdog said, unveiling what human rights advocates claim is yet another atrocity committed by local security forces during a decades-long insurgency in the heavily forested region.

The National Human Rights Commission said in a statement Sunday that it found least 16 women were “victims of rape, sexual and physical assault,” concluding an investigation into reports that police attacked several villages in the Bijapur district in the Chhattisgarh state during an operation against Maoist rebels in October 2015. The commission is still in the process of collecting the recorded statements of about 20 other victims of alleged sexual assault.

“Prima-facie, human rights of the victims have been grossly violated by the security personnel of the government of Chhattisgarh, for which the state government is vicariously liable,” the government commission said in its statement.

The watchdog began its own investigation after a news report was published in the Indian Express in November 2015, in which more than 40 women from five villages in the Bijapur district alleged state police sexually harassed and assaulted them, gang-raping several of them.

One of the villagers, a 14-year-old girl, was grazing her cattle when she was allegedly blindfolded and gang-raped. The news article also reported that belongings of many villagers were destroyed, stolen or scattered by the forces passing through the villages.

Chhattisgarh, a central Indian state about 1,200 km southeast of the capital New Delhi, is a  remote region that is the epicenter of the decades-old Maoist-inspired rebellion that has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and was spurred primarily among indigenous tribal populations known as adivasis. The communist fighters say they are battling the Indian government for land, jobs and other rights for poor tribal groups.

Adivasis tend to be poor and uneducated, and have been targets of mob violence for years from various tribal groups in the country, The Washington Post previously reported. Locals and activists have accused Indian security forces of carrying out “collective punishment” against adivasis for their perceived connections to Maoist rebels, whether they exist or not, The Post reported.

Police launched an investigation over the rape allegations, but no arrests have been made.

Kishore Narayan, a lawyer representing 14 victims, told AFP the panel has backed their claims and accused the police of deliberately shielding those responsible.

“The victims gave the names of the policemen involved in the barbarity but nothing has happened,” Narayan told AFP. “They carried a sham investigation and are trying to obfuscate the case.”

He said they have filed a petition in the Chhattisgarh High Court demanding an investigation by a special police team from outside the state. A chief secretary for the state government has been directed to ensure that monetary relief, if any, is paid to the victims, according to the commission’s statement.

Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression, a group that helped flag rape allegations in the villages, lauded the commission’s intervention in the cases, and claimed the findings validated the group’s “assertion that sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war” in the region, it said in a statement.

The organization said the cases filed “may be only the tip of the iceberg,” adding that reports of sexual violence by security forces continue to come in from other villages in the region where search and combing operations were carried out.

The five villages where security forces allegedly went on the rampage, between Oct. 19 and 24 in 2015, largely remain out of bounds for even journalists, the Hindustan Times reported. A television reporter speaking to the Hindustan Times called the area “virtually a no-go zone,” saying the authorities “treat everyone as Maoists.”

Activists often accuse Indian security forces of committing gross human rights violations including extrajudicial killings, arson, and sexual assault in the conflict-torn region, the AFP reported.

In March 2011, the residents of Tarmetla, also in the state of Chhattisgarh, were driven from their homes by heavily armed police and paramilitary soldiers who believed militants were being harbored there. An inquiry by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation found that the police had burned the village, killing people and sexually assaulting women as they went.

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