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Fear of death hangs in the air

- Garo hills villagers grapple with rule of gun

Tura, June 6: “We have to live in constant fear. We need security,” says Winkle Sangma, 45, of Rongpakgre village in Chokpot.

Thirty others echoed Winkle when this correspondent visited several villages in and around Chokpot.

Two separate incidents — one of an overground Garo National Liberation Army rebel’s death in custody on May 28 and the killing of a woman, Jospin Sangma, by GNLA rebels on June 3 — have drawn attention to Chokpot, 400km from Shillong, and its adjoining areas.

Two buses ply from Tura to this sleepy hamlet every day, a distance of nearly 61km.

The police say the GNLA’s three units and the breakaway faction of A’chik National Volunteer’s council, ANVC-B, operates from this area.

The government’s claim that security has been beefed up in the area proves hollow when one visits this remote location.

At Chokpot police station, a senior police officer says till June 3 this year, there was one case each of kidnapping, murder and extortion. Many cases of extortion go unreported. “The GNLA has three units here and each comprises 30-40 cadres,” he said.

Some of the militants active in the area are Baichung Momin, Kerio Marak and Hedio Momin.

In December last year, at Rongsa A’we, near Nongalbibra in South Garo Hills, a GNLA militant had killed businessman Samson Sangma.

Asked if the perpetrators were arrested, he said, “We take up the cases under different criminal laws. Few have been arrested. The militants kill a person and brand him/her as a police informer. It is very sad that NGOs don’t raise such issues,” he added.

Pointing out another case of militant brutality, he said, “One Jenifer Marak was beaten to death in full public view at Ruga in South Garo Hills recently. It is really a sorry state of affairs. They claim to be fighting for the Garos.”

On the recent death of overground GNLA worker Witson Sangma at Chokpot police station, he said, “He was helping to burn IEDs and was actively involved with the outfit. It is unfortunate that he died in lock-up and the police are being blamed.”

He said a militant, identified as Tengton, was responsible for the murder of Jospin on Tuesday evening. “We have identified him based on the accounts of the villagers,” he added.

Three days after Jospin’s murder, the police today moved the victim’s family to a safer location.

“There was a fear of reprisal by the GNLA and there was information that the family may be attacked because they reported the matter to the police. Hence we transported them to a safe location,” Lakador Syiem, the South Garo Hills superintendent of police, said.

Raid on hideout

A 36-hour operation against the GNLA ended late last evening. The fierce gunbattle lasted for several hours near Adugre village, nearly 25km from Williamnagar town. However, there were no casualties.

The hideout was 3km from Adugre village on the Durama hill range of East Garo Hills. At least 30 militants, including GNLA commander-in-chief Sohan D. Shira, managed to escape.

Meghalaya director-general of police Peter J. Haneman told The Telegraph, “It was a regular operation against insurgents. It has nothing to do with the incident that took place at Raja Ronggat.”

“We managed to bust the militants’ hideout and recovered bullet-proof jackets and other materials. Sometimes we achieve results, sometimes we fail,” he added.

East Garo Hills superintendent of police Davies Marak said, “The militants managed to escape under cover of the thick forest.”

Search for bodies: Meghalaya police are searching for three bodies at Emongre reserve forest in South Garo Hills. The three are believed to have been killed by militants recently. The reserve forest is nearly 25km from Baghmara in the Durama hill range.

The South Garo Hills SP said, “We are sending our team for investigation.”