05/27/2013 03:19 EDT | Updated 07/26/2013 05:12 EDT

Troops begin search in central India for Maoist rebels behind attack that killed 24

NEW DELHI - Thousands of troops have fanned out across central India in a massive manhunt two days after hundreds of Maoist rebels attacked a convoy of ruling party members and leaders, killing 24 people in an area considered the stronghold of the rebels.

Ram Niwas, a top police official in Chhattisgarh state, would not give details about Monday's search operations but says government troops are working in the "inhospitable terrain" to hunt down those responsible for the attack.

Saturday's ambush, which targeted Congress party politicians returning from a campaign event with the area's indigenous tribal community, appeared to be a warning to officials to stay away from the stronghold. The rebels are thought to now operate in or control vast areas in 20 of India's 28 states.