| Indian soldiers patrol the Bhutan border. Picture by Biplab Basak
“Palat jaa India main.
Idhar bahoot khatra”
Kalikhola (South Bhutan), Dec. 16: Two kilometres inside the jungle — and the same distance from the Indian border — a Kalashnikov-toting Royal Bhutan Army soldier popped out of the foliage to shout the warning: Go back to the Indian side. There is grave danger here.
A heavily-armed royal army unit cordon appeared in his footsteps. “You have no business inside Bhutan territory. How did you enter'” the soldier asked.
Once informed of our identity, the unit warned: “There have been fierce encounters between the RBA and Indian militants throughout yesterday. And it is not safe for you to proceed any further. Turn back to India and stay away.”
It was a message the Northeast insurgents, who had set up camps in southern Bhutan bordering Assam and Bengal, had been delivered strongly, with bullets.
Only a day into the royal army crackdown on the camps of the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) and the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) — both of Assam — and the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), of Bengal, the insurgents were not only on the run but crying to be let off.
In a letter to the Bhutan king, the government and its people, Ulfa chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa appealed for a cessation of the offensive, citing the “historical bonds” of the kingdom with northeastern India.
“The Ulfa earnestly appeals to cease all those activities that might get in the way of our legitimate struggle, our fraternity, and historical bondage,” the letter, e-mailed to The Telegraph office in Guwahati, said.
With the Indian army sealing the border to net any fleeing militants, the Bhutan troops — around 6,000 are being used in the operation — are now advancing towards the Ulfa’s general headquarters after overrunning its central headquarters yesterday. The three outfits have some 30 camps.
Intelligence reports suggest the militants are trying to march to safety, along with their families, towards capital Thimphu.
Bhutan army officials — who read out the unwelcome notice in Fifshu jungle of Kalikhola sub-division — said there were no encounters today with the militants, who had managed to flee deeper into the jungles.
The army has suffered 16 casualties, with the condition of four soldiers said to be critical. Losses on the other side were not clear.
“The Indian insurgents are there somewhere, holed up deep inside the jungle, waiting to strike back. Today’s calm is deceptive and quite unnerving for us,” said an official.
Although the Indian Army has cordoned off the border area to act as the anvil to the Bhutan army’s hammer, it was not too difficult to travel along a 10-km dirt track through the forest and across the demarcation between the two countries.
The dense forest resembles a war zone with armoured vehicles carrying the Indian Army’s 33 Corps based in north Bengal, but, apart from half-a-dozen stops to check credentials and a “no-photographs and no-entry-in-Bhutan” warning, there was no obstruction.
The Indian army has set up several advanced command posts with sophisticated communication and surveillance equipment. “We are not leaving anything to chance. While the Bhutan army has managed to dismantle at least six insurgent camps in two districts alone, they have met with limited success in nabbing militants,” said an officer.