| Maj. Ravindra Alwin S. Thabah’s family members pay their last respects at the Malki ground in Shillong. Picture by Eastern Projections
Guwahati, Dec. 4: The army today admitted to making the mistake of believing an “unknown source”, leading to the clash that claimed 10 lives near Hajo in Assam’s Kamrup district on Sunday.
The general-officer-commanding (GOC) of the Red Horns division, Maj. Gen. Gaganjit Singh, said at a hurriedly-convened news conference here that the army had “learnt a lesson the hard way”. He said army units involved in counter-insurgency operations would henceforth “screen all sources (of information)”.
The Assam Regiment team had raided Athiyapara village at the behest of one Md. Ali, who claimed that Ulfa militants were taking shelter at a schoolteacher’s house. A mob mistook the army personnel, all in civvies, for militants and attacked them. The villagers killed two of the personnel, including a Major, and the driver of the vehicle with sharp weapons. This provoked the remaining armymen into opening fire, killing six villagers on the spot. One person died in hospital.
Ali, singled out as the villain of the piece, was arrested before dawn from Akhwa Larukhunda village under Hajo police station. The police paraded him before photographers at the Kamrup SP’s office even as Maj. Gen. Singh addressed the media.
“We will ensure that freak and unfortunate incidents like the one in Hajo do not take place again. We are thinking of screening unknown sources before acting upon any information provided by them,” the GOC said.
Maj. Gen. Singh, however, claimed that circumspection could take the sting out of army operations.
Chief minister Tarun Gogoi had blamed the army for the incident in Hajo, saying it should have consulted the civil administration before raiding Athiyapara village.
He urged defence minister George Fernandes to instruct the army to co-ordinate its activities with that of the civil administration, which is mandatory for the constituents of the three-tier Unified Command structure.
A meeting of the Unified Command, slated for Friday, will discuss what went wrong at Athiyapara on Sunday, official sources said.
Though he admitted that the incident could have been averted, Maj. Gen. Singh defended the decision to raid the village. He said the slain company commander of the 10 Assam Regiment, Maj. R.A.S. Thabah, “reacted promptly” to information about the “presence” of Ulfa activists in the village.
“At times, an officer has to react immediately without trying to establish the genuineness of the information provided. The fact that Md. Ali had urged the company commander to save his fellow villagers from the Ulfa made him decide to act immediately, lest the militants execute their plan and escape,” the GOC said.
He claimed that the district administration could not be informed about the raid because “time was at a premium”.
On the army team’s decision to raid the village in civvies, Maj. Gen. Singh said it was a strategic move. “The company commander decided to launch a covert operation because it was daytime. Militants invariably station a man on the outer periphery of the village in which they are hiding to keep them informed about raids by security personnel.”
Refuting allegations about the army’s involvement in extortion, the GOC said such talk did not merit any discussion.
There was another mix-up in Kokrajhar district today, with two groups of policemen exchanging fire after mistaking each other for militants. However, there was no casualty.
Sources said a six-member team from the 7 Assam Police Battalion started firing on hearing gunshots in the vicinity of a firing range.
It took 20 minutes for both sides, one engaged in patrolling the Chowkhola area and the other in firing practice, to realise that they were colleagues.