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Fence fireworks in the air

New Delhi, Feb. 5: India is expecting another round of noises from Bangladesh ' not over the postponed Saarc summit but the fence that is about to get closer to the border than ever before.

Delhi has given the go-ahead to agencies like the Border Security Force to erect the fence within 150 yards of the zero line at places where human habitation does not permit leaving the space.

India has already fenced 1,670 km and has set an ambitious target to complete fencing 3,286 km of the 4,086 km-long border by March 2006. The remaining 800 km cannot be fenced as the terrain is either riverine or has thick vegetation.

Dhaka has scuttled previous attempts to erect the fence within 150 yards of the border by waving a 1975 agreement that bars defensive structures less than 150 yards of the zero line. Delhi has consistently rejected the argument but, in June last year, it put on hold fencing along 285 km. Sources said the government wanted to give the talks route another chance.

When the diplomatic initiatives failed to convince Dhaka, the Union home ministry took the issue to the Cabinet Committee on Security on October 13.

Home minister Shivraj Patil is learnt to have argued that there was no reason why Delhi should leave parts of the border unfenced because of Dhaka's reservations. More so when Bangladesh did not appear to be taking note of Delhi's security concerns and tightening the screws on anti-India insurgent groups like the United Liberation Front of Asom, which are operating from its soil.

The argument, also voiced by home secretary Dhirendra Singh during his last visit to Dhaka in August, appeared to have convinced the top decision-making authority on security issues.

The cabinet committee gave its go-ahead informally but left the decision on the approach to moving the fence within 150 yards of the border to the late J.. Dixit, then national security adviser.

A career diplomat, Dixit was aware that erecting a fence within 150 yards of the border could give Dhaka a handle to embarrass Delhi during the Saarc summit. At a meeting convened by Dixit on December 1, a decision was taken to speed up construction of the fence but only after the summit.

'Since the summit has been postponed, instructions have been issued to the agencies concerned to go full steam on the fencing immediately,' a senior official said.

BSF officials said they had indicated to the home ministry that they would prefer covering the trouble spots in phases to ensure that the force did not have to open too many fronts in case there was some resistance from Bangladesh.

The suggestion, however, appears to have been turned down by the government, which is keen that the controversial 285 km is covered at the earliest.

'We do not think that anything that cannot be handled will happen,' a senior official said. 'We are, after all, erecting the fence on our side of the border to curb movement of illegal immigrants and smuggling of goods.'

In Bangladesh, at least 60 people were injured in clashes between police and Opposition activists as a nation-wide strike to protest a grenade attack on an Opposition rally got underway. Police beat protesters with batons and fired teargas, while activists threw stones at police and vehicles, witnesses said. The clashes occurred a day before the original date of the Saarc summit.

The strike, the fifth in about two weeks, is in protest against the attack on an Awami League rally in which a former finance minister and four others were killed.

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