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Page last updated at 07:43 GMT, Friday, 11 December 2009

Indian separatists 'increasingly cornered'

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

Northeast rebels
Several rebel groups are active in India's northeast

Separatist rebels from north-east India, facing considerable heat in Bangladesh, are desperate to find a new sanctuary in the neighbourhood, officials say.

Nearly 50 of them have been arrested by Bangladesh security forces in the last two months and quietly handed over to Indian authorities .

That includes at least four top leaders of the United Liberation Front of Assam (Ulfa), among them the group's chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa.

Nearly 200 fighters belonging to rebel groups in Assam and Tripura have fled the crackdown in Bangladesh and some have already surrendered.

Intelligence officials say many more guerrillas, totally demoralised, may give up soon.

The Ulfa have maintained several bases and "safe houses" in Bangladesh since the early 1990s, Mr Rajkhowa told Assam police during questioning.

'No surrender'

He said he was picked up by Bangladesh's Detective Branch (DB) from the seaside resort town of Cox's Bazar on 2 December, when he was trying to escape to Burma with his family, his bodyguard Rajah Borah and his "chief military spokesman" Raju Barua.

"I have not surrendered, I was caught by Bangladesh police and handed over to Indian border guards," Mr Rajkhowa told reporters when he was produced in a court in Assam's capital, Guwahati, at the weekend.

Ulfa Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa being produced in court in Guwahati on 5 Dec 2009
Mr Rajkhowa was handed over to India by Bangladesh

Mr Rajkhowa disputed Indian Home Secretary GK Pillai's contention that he had "surrendered" along with his family.

"I will never surrender and India cannot get me to start negotiations by holding a gun to my head," the Ulfa chairman told reporters at the Guwahati court.

Indian officials say they expect the "moderates" in the Ulfa to start negotiations with Delhi in view of the huge pressure they are facing in Bangladesh.

In the past, the Ulfa hardliners led by the group's military wing chief Paresh Barua said the group would not join talks unless the issue of Assam's sovereignty was on the agenda for negotiations.

But they seem to be softening their stand now.

"There is no split in the Ulfa leadership on this issue. It is insidious Indian propaganda and it will not work," Mr Barua, who has fled from Bangladesh, told the BBC over phone.

'Honeymoon over'

Split or no split, there is no denying the Ulfa - and other north-east Indian rebel groups based in Bangladesh - is in serious trouble.

"For nearly two decades, these rebels have found shelter in Bangladesh. They trained their new recruits at bases in Bangladesh and sent them back to India to fight. Now the honeymoon is finally over," says EN Rammohan, former chief of India's Border Security Force (BSF) .

Map

Mr Rammohan says that persistent denials by previous regimes in Bangladesh about the presence of these rebels in that country has now been "exposed" by Dhaka's firm action after Sheikh Hasina took over as prime minister earlier this year.

During her previous tenure (1996-2001), the Bangladesh police arrested the Ulfa general secretary Anup Chetia and two of his aides and all three were sentenced to several years in prison.

But the crackdown that started against the north-eastern rebels two months ago in Bangladesh has been much more comprehensive and unrelenting, Indian officials say.

"They have just been pushed back on charges of illegal trespass into Bangladeshi territory. That makes it easy for both sides," says a senior Indian intelligence official who is unwilling to be identified.

India and Bangladesh don't have an extradition treaty so far - but Dhaka seems to have got round this by adopting a "pushback" method to throw out the north-eastern rebels.

'All Clear'

This is easily the worst knock the Ulfa has taken in the Indian neighbourhood since Bhutan demolished their bases during a military offensive in December 2003.

That offensive, codenamed "All Clear", led to the death of a large number of Ulfa leaders and activists, including four of their top field commanders.

Ulfa supporters take out a rally in Guwahati on 5 December 2009
India expects Ulfa moderates will agree to talks

Many others, including the Ulfa's founder Bhimkanta Buragohain, were handed over to India.

"We cannot control the insurgency in the north-east unless we get our neighbours to crack down on them," says security analyst Gaganjit Singh, a former deputy chief of India's Defense Intelligence Agency.

"It is great news that Bangladesh is now doing a Bhutan on this issue."

Mr Singh said India should put pressure on the Burmese to act, because nearly 3,000 fighters of Naga, Manipuri and Assamese separatist groups are based in more than 20 camps in Burma's western Sagaing Division.

"Some of the toughest north-eastern guerrillas are in these bases in Burma. If the Burmese army attacks them, they will have nowhere to go," Mr Singh said.

Although the Burmese do sometimes take military action against them, they have not undertaken a comprehensive military operation like the Bhutanese "All Clear".

Some of these north-eastern rebel leaders are turning to China, trying to exploit India's strained relations with that country in recent months.

Indian intelligence officials say the Ulfa and the Peoples' Liberation Army (PLA) of Manipur have secured some support from China, but Beijing has denied the charges.



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