Jalpaiguri, Nov. 3: Twelve army personnel from the Ninth Engineering Regiment were arrested on charges of smuggling timber in the Mahananda wildlife sanctuary area near Siliguri early today, forest and police officials said.
The armymen, based in Kanchrapara near Calcutta, were returning after delivering supplies to the Bengdubi cantonment near Bagdogra when the forest department arrested them. Three army trucks loaded with 300 cubic feet of timber worth Rs 3 lakh were seized.
Conservator of forests (northern circle) A.K. Saha said the armymen, arrested in the Baikunthapur forest division, were booked under Section 59 of the Indian Forest Act of 1988. They were later handed over to the military police on bail bond. The seized vehicles were returned to the army for “safe custody”.
Saha said the army authorities had promised to “take appropriate action” against the offenders. At the same time, the forest department would also pursue the case in a civil court, he added.
Additional superintendent of police Anand Kumar said policemen from the local Ambari outpost were present when the army personnel were arrested. “It’s the forest department which arrested the armymen. We were there to thwart any law and order problems,” he said.
Local army authorities were tight-lipped about the arrests.
“The matter will be dealt with in accordance with army regulations. If they are found guilty, punitive action will be taken against them,” a military police official said.
Acting on a tip-off that the armymen were loading their trucks with timber, forest officials rushed to the Baikunthapur forest, which is part of the Mahananda wildlife sanctuary, around 4 am. They spotted the armymen near Belacoba in Jalpaiguri district.
“They were coming out of the forest with the illegal timber when we arrived there. We set up a roadblock and arrested them,” Saha said, adding that the armymen did not resist.
Forest minister Jogesh Burman has asked for a detailed report on the incident.
“I have also asked the conservator of forests to ensure the army personnel do not go scot-free,” he added.
Saha said the armymen, who had come to the Bengdubi cantonment on October 28, had left for Kanchrapara on November 1. “But officials at Baikunthapur forest division were informed last night that the three trucks were loading up timber in the Gajaldoba-Teesta barrage area.”
The arrested army personnel were identified as K. Rajan, Malhar Mamman, Nirala Kumar Pandey, N.K. Mohan, M.A. Zarid, O. Ramaiya, P.S. Reddy, M. Aditya, K.S. Talwar, R. Shekhar, Krishna Rao and Kanka Prasad. Except for Rajan, who was the team leader, the others were all jawans.
Forest department sources said the armymen claimed they had bought a total of 35 logs from a timber merchant for Rs 19,000. “But they refused to name him,” they added.
Forest officials said the arrests were just “a tip of an iceberg” and that timber smuggling was rampant in the area.
They said the army trucks were a good “cover” for smuggling out timber since they were hardly stopped at checkpoints.