A human rights group has accused a state-backed, anti-Maoist group of widespread rights abuses against villagers in central India.  Anjana Pasricha has a report from New Delhi.

In a new report, Human Rights Watch says attacks by government-backed, tribal militias on villagers suspected of supporting Maoist rebels have forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes in the central Indian state, Chattisgarh.

The state government denies supporting the militias and says the "Salwa Judum" or Campaign for Peace, is a spontaneous citizens movement that grew three years ago, in response to extortion, torture and other atrocities committed by Maoist rebels. 

But Human Rights Watch says what may have begun as a spontaneous protest is now "out of control."

Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch says the group found clear evidence that the Salwa Judum movement is supported by the government and that, along with government forces, it is responsible for numerous attacks targeting innocent civilians.

"We found that police officers had been witnessed committing killings, beatings, rapes, destruction of houses and forcible displacement of thousands of villagers from Chattisgarh," said Becker.

The report says at least 100,000 people have lost homes and livelihoods and been pushed into refugee camps amid spiraling violence that has seen Maoist rebels retaliate by attacking and killing Salwa Judum recruits.

Jo Becker says innocent villagers are caught in the crossfire between the Salwa Judum and the Maoists,   known as Naxalites in India.   

"They have been pressured to support the Naxalites, on the one hand, and the Salwa Judum or the government, on the other hand.  And, if they refuse to cooperate with one, then they are assumed to be sympathetic to the other.  Asking one side for safety puts them at risk of attack by the other," added Becker.

Human Rights Watch is asking the state government to end support for the movement, investigate rights abuses and protect villagers who want to return home.

The state government denies supporting the "Salwa Judum," a movement which was initially intended to starve the Maoists of their support in the region.

Chattisgarh is one of India's poorer states.  The rebels have become deeply entrenched in its thick forests.

A violent campaign by Maoist rebels, who say they are fighting for the rights of the rural poor, has gathered momentum in recent years in Eastern and Central India.