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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 December, 2003, 11:40 GMT
Bhutan troops die in rebel action
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC correspondent in Calcutta

More than 20 people have been killed in southern Bhutan during fierce fighting between government soldiers and Indian separatist rebels.

The tiny Himalayan kingdom is trying to evict two Indian rebel groups from bases in their country.

At least eight soldiers have died and more than 15 were injured in the fighting, a Bhutan official said.

The rebels say they have suffered 13 casualties and have lost four of their bases in Bhutan.

The operation is the first that Bhutan has mounted against the United Liberation Front of Assam (Ulfa) and another outlawed group, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), who have been sheltering on its soil.

Even Saddam Hussein had to give up. Ulfa and NDFB leaders must realise that this is their last chance to start talks
Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi
Bhutanese soldiers are continuing attacks against several camps of these two groups inside Bhutan, the official said.

Indian army helicopters are being used to evacuate the injured, a Bhutanese Government statement said.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi welcomed the Bhutanese offensive and urged the rebel groups to stop fighting and hold talks.

"Even Saddam Hussein had to give up. So the Ulfa and NDFB leaders must realise that this is their last chance to start talks with us," Mr Gogoi told the BBC.

Heavy attack

Ulfa's military commander, Paresh Barua, told the BBC that two of their bases in southern Bhutan housing their military and political wings had come under heavy attack.

He said a senior leader, Bhimkanta Buragohain, had been injured and one rebel fighter killed.

The Bhutanese king (right) with Prime Minister Vajpayee in Delhi
Bhutan's king told the Indian prime minister of the impending attack
They said Indian troops had fired on them across the border - but India and Bhutan deny launching a joint attack.

Indian military officials say they have deployed additional troops on the borders with Bhutan to take on groups of guerrillas who may flee into the neighbouring states of Assam or West Bengal.

Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha told parliament: "The Indian army is taking necessary measures to intercept movement of militants from Bhutan into India."

He said Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuk had telephoned Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to tell him of the planned action on Saturday.

"Bhutan is now living up to its promise that it will not allow anti-Indian elements to thrive there," Mr Sinha said.

Pressure

Under considerable Indian pressure, Bhutanese ministers and officials have tried to negotiate the rebels withdrawal from the kingdom - without much success.

Bhutan's National Assembly authorised troops to initiate military action against the rebels if they did not leave the kingdom on their own.

Thousands have died since the two Indian rebel groups Ulfa and the NDFB took up arms.

The NDFB is fighting for an independent homeland for the Bodo tribe in the north-east Indian state of Assam. The Ulfa is fighting for Assam's independence from India.

For the past 10 years, the NDFB and the Ulfa have maintained a large number of bases in southern Bhutan.


SEE ALSO:
Q&A: India's violent north-east
21 Nov 03  |  South Asia
Bhutan offers rebels talks
15 Sep 03  |  South Asia
Prince swaps classroom for war
04 Nov 03  |  Oxfordshire
Bhutan gives rebels 'final chance'
02 Jul 03  |  South Asia
Indian rebels leave Bhutan
01 Jul 03  |  South Asia
Country profile: Bhutan
03 Dec 03  |  Country profiles


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