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Page last updated at 10:31 GMT, Friday, 19 September 2008 11:31 UK

'Over 500' Indian troops have HIV

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

Assam Rifles soldier
The Assam Rifles are mostly recruited from the north-east (Photos: Rituraj Borthakur)

More than 500 soldiers belonging to an elite paramilitary force in India are infected with HIV, the chief of the force has said.

Seventy troops of the 173-year-old Assam Rifles have died of the infection in the past 10 years, according to Lieutenant General Karan Singh Yadava.

Many of the Assam Rifles troops are posted in north-eastern India and are engaged in fighting local insurgencies.

India has one of the highest numbers of people with HIV in the world.

Lt Gen Yadava said the force is organising sex education lessons for troops.

"We have asked our men to curb the menace (of HIV infections) with full strength," he said.

The Assam Rifles are recruited and deployed in the north-east of India - where they help maintain security or quell insurgencies in states such Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland.

They are posted in areas close to the Burmese border which have some of the highest rates of HIV infection in India.

Abuses

Analysts say the easy availability of narcotics from Burma - and the local tendency to inject them through the multiple use of syringes - is the main cause for such high prevalence of Aids.

Lt Gen Karan Singh Yadava

We are giving a lot of importance to creating awareness of safe sex among the troops
Lt Gen Karan Singh Yadava

But they say members of the Assam Rifles mainly get infected through unprotected sex rather than through drugs use.

Assam Rifles troops have, in recent years, been accused of forcing local women into having sex with them.

In 1987, the force launched Operation Bluebird in the Oinam area of Manipur after Naga separatists looted more than 100 weapons from their camp.

Human rights groups in the north-east allege that at that time, a large number of rapes were reported and some pregnant women were even forced to give birth in the open.

In 1989, an Assam Rifles patrol was found guilty of gang-raping a number of tribal women in a remote hamlet in the state of Tripura.

In 2004, they were accused of raping and killing a girl in Manipur.

The US-based Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that some of the guilty troops were being shielded, though the case is still going on.

The Assam Rifles was raised 173 years ago as a specialist force by the British during their campaigns against fiercely-independent tribal chiefs in the north-east.

Post-colonial India expanded the force to its current strength of 46 battalions - with about 1,000 men in each battalion - as rebel groups proliferated across the troubled north-east.




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