Page last updated at 14:01 GMT, Thursday, 10 December 2009

Assam rebel leader tells BBC he is willing to talk

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

Paresh Barua
Mr Barua is the only senior Ulfa leader at large

A separatist leader in the north-east Indian state of Assam has said he would be willing to talk to the government if it sets no pre-conditions.

Paresh Barua, the head of the military wing of the United Liberation Front of Assam (Ulfa), told the BBC that any talks "must be free and unfettered".

Meanwhile, at least four people have been killed in a suspected Ulfa bomb attack in an Assamese market.

Ulfa rebels have fought for a separate Assamese homeland since 1979.

Thursday's bomb went off at Misamari market just outside a major Indian army base, leading officials to suspect soldiers were the target.

Police say four pedestrians died on the spot and 35 others were injured, many of them critically.

A similar explosion rocked the central Assam town of Nalbari on 22 November, immediately after two top Ulfa leaders - Sashadhar Choudhury and Chitrabon Hazarika - were arrested in Bangladesh and handed over to India.

Last week Bangladesh handed over Ulfa chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, his family and another key militant to officials in the Indian state of Meghalaya.

'Hold a referendum'

Mr Barua said if India is a democracy it should allow the "voice of the people of Assam to be heard".

Captured weapons on display in Assam

"We want to raise the issue of Assam's sovereignty. Delhi wants us to accept Indian sovereignty. So there is obviously a difference in perceptions but the same can be narrowed only through discussions," he told the BBC by telephone from an undisclosed location.

"Negotiations must be free and unfettered. Or else India should hold a referendum or a plebiscite and let the people of Assam express themselves freely," Mr Barua said.

"If they say they want to be part of India, so be it. We will accept the people's verdict but the conduct of the plebiscite should be free and fair and nobody should try to influence it."

Mr Barua alleged that the Indian government is not interested in "open negotiations."

"They want to split our organisation and that has been proved by what they did with our chairman recently," Mr Barua said.

Indian Home Minister P Chidamabaram had told the parliament that he expected a "positive political statement from the Ulfa".

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