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Neighbour hitch in army offensive

Guwahati, Jan. 10: The army is not exactly feeling empowered by defence minister A.K. Antony’s carte blanche to do “whatever it takes” to rein in the rampaging Ulfa.

A day after getting the go-ahead for another round of intensive operations against the outfit, counter-insurgency veterans said no offensive against the militants would succeed as long as their camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar remained intact. “We must somehow go after Myanmar and Bangladesh,” a senior officer said.

He said the military operation by Bhutan in late 2003 broke Ulfa’s back but the gains were frittered away by the political leadership in the name of starting a dialogue with the militant group. “With the beginning of the peace process bringing army operations to a halt, Ulfa got the opportunity to recruit, relocate its artillery, extort money and draw up a revival strategy.”

The officer said no amount of forces were enough to challenge Ulfa units in the inhospitable terrain of Arunachal Pradesh, from where the militants operate and flee to Myanmar when the going gets tough. “Practically no intelligence on their movements is available from where they are holed up now, given the fact that there is hardly any human habitation in these places.”

On whether that means the ongoing operations will not affect Ulfa in any way, the army officer said: “There will be little gain in the absence of actionable intelligence, no matter how many men are deployed. We cannot post a soldier under every tree of those thick jungles.”

The Unified Command for counter-insurgency operations decided to reassign a brigade of troops to Upper Assam after the string of attacks on Hindi-speaking people.

The army officer said the incidents could not have been prompted by a specific act of provocation by the government.

“These were co-ordinated strikes that require planning over a period of time. The militants would have carried out a reconnaissance of the areas they targeted and moved weapons in advance.”

While the army is cynical about its chances of success in weeding out Ulfa for good, news of the armed forces being given a free hand has ostensibly affected the morale of the police force. A senior police officer in an Upper Assam district said the police were always the “first casualty” in such situations.

“We are never given a free hand against militants. We are always held back, asked to go slow as police action also has political connotations. But with the army, the state government can always blame the Centre.”

Another senior official in Guwahati echoed him. He said all the talk about the police force being “modernised” was mere prattle. “Very little has been done on the ground. Many of our men still wield 303 rifles, while the militants have AK 47 and AK 56 rifles. Not even the bravest can do anything in such a situation.”

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