Three police personnel were killed after a group of poachers opened fire at them in Madhya Pradesh’s Guna district early on Saturday, police officers said, adding that two of the seven accused poachers were killed in separate gunfights and two of them were arrested.

According to the police, the shootout took place in Shahrok forest near Aron in Saga Barkheda village in the district around 3 am.

Guna superintendent of police Rajeev Mishra said acting on a tipoff about blackbuck poaching in the forest, 3-4 police teams reached the spot around 2.45 am. “They nabbed three poachers, but suddenly four poachers on motorbikes opened fire at the police team,” he said.

Some police personnel received bullet injuries leading to the death of three, the SP said, adding a police driver was also injured in the incident. The deceased police personnel were identified as sub-inspector Rajkumar Jatav (27) and constables Neeraj Bhargava (38) and Santram Meena (27), an officer said.

While one of the poachers, identified as Naushad Mewati, a resident of Bedoriya village, was killed in the cross-firing on the spot, and one of the accused was killed in an encounter late in the evening. The gunfight was underway at the time of going to press.

“Shahzad Khan, who was hiding near a small hillock under the jurisdiction of Bajranggarh police station, was killed in the encounter,” said D Sreeniwas Verma inspector general of police Gwalior Division. District administration and police team also demolished an illegal house of Naushad in Bidoriya, officials said.

Soon after the incident, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan held a high-level meeting and announced an ex gratia of 1 crore as well as government jobs to the kin of each of the deceased policemen. “Police personnel killed get the status of martyr and will be cremated with full state honours,” the CM said, adding severe punishment will be handed to the accused.

He also transferred the inspector general (IG) of Gwalior zone, Anil Sharma, for his “delay in reaching the incident site”.

At least two decapitated carcasses and five heads of blackbuck were recovered from the spot, police said, adding that a carcass of peacock was also found on the spot. A senior police officer familiar with the investigation said slain poacher Mewati, along with six others, killed four male blackbucks, a female blackbuck and a peacock on Friday night to serve the meat in his niece’s wedding feast. Blackbucks, also called Indian antelopes, are usually killed for their horns and skin, but a senior forest official said the poachers are taking advantage of easy availability of blackbuck in farm land and killing them for meat.

“The poaching of blackbuck has not been done by any organised gang. As many as 38 poachers have been arrested between 2008 and 2018 and most of them are local villagers, who kill the animal for meat. This is a reason behind the lower conviction rate as it is difficult to prove the purpose,” said a forest official. Local farmers said they were facing trouble as blackbucks and other varieties of deer regularly destroy their crop, especially moong.

The Wildlife Protection Act prohibits the hunting of any wild animal specified in schedules I, II, III and IV of the act.

However, a forest official said agricultural land is the natural habitat of blackbucks, and not forest. “The population estimation of blackbuck has not been done… Blackbucks live in the agricultural land not in forest, so it is difficult to control them. But we are making an action plan,” said Hemant Raikwar, Guna divisional officer.

“The incident is saddening and heartbreaking. Instructions have been given to take such a strict action against the criminals, which will set an example,” said state’s home minister Narottam Mishra. Leader of opposition in the state assembly Govind Singh, however, demanded Mishra’s resignation. “Not only people but police personnel are also not safe in Madhya Pradesh. Home minister should resign from his post,” the Congress leader said.

(With inputs from Yogendra Lumba in Guna)

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