| Bhutanese soldiers atop an armoured vehicle near the India-Bhutan border in Samdrup Jongkhar, 80 km south of Guwahati, on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Dec. 17: The Bhutanese flushout has snared at least three top leaders of militant groups active in Assam and Bengal in a breakthrough that is as unusual as the crackdown now rolling along India’s north-eastern border.
But a steady drone of Indian helicopters ferrying wounded Bhutanese soldiers outlived the occasional boom of gunfire in the jungles, raising the possibility of heavy casualties on the hunter and the hunted.
Bhutanese and Indian security officials said off the record that a top leader of the United Front of Asom and two of the north Bengal-based Kamtapur Liberation Organisation had been caught during the sweep that entered its third day today.
Unconfirmed reports said the forces have also closed in on Jeevan Singh, the KLO chief. Officials said they would not make any comment on Singh’s “status”. The publicity secretary of the National Democratic Front of Boroland, B. Erakdao, is also said to be among those in custody.
Ulfa commander-in-chief Paresh Barua phoned newspaper offices in Guwahati to confirm the capture of publicity wing chief Mithinga Daimary.
The commander of the Ulfa, whose chairman had appealed to Bhutan yesterday to halt the operation, today took the mercy plea further and sought the intervention of the Red Cross. “We have appealed to the Red Cross to intervene in the conflict zone,” Barua said. He ruled out surrender but said the terms for shifting the camps could be discussed with Bhutan.
Bhutan appeared to be in no mood to relent. Director in the foreign ministry Yeshe Dorjee said: “The Bhutanese government is determined to continue with its operations till the insurgents (totalling 3,000) leave our soil.”
However, chased from the jungle hideouts in the southern districts of the Himalayan kingdom, the militants are said to be putting up “tough” resistance against the comparatively “inexperienced” Royal Bhutan Army troops. Reports from Thimphu said the Indian insurgents have suffered heavy losses, but added that the casualties on the Bhutanese side, too, were “high”.
“Over a 100 militants are reported to have been killed in the last three days. At least 18 hideouts have been busted and all the major camps have been dismantled,” a Bhutan home ministry official said from Thimphu. “We have also suffered a few casualties,” he added.
Other sources said last evening, at least 10 Bhutanese soldiers were killed when militants blew up a “suspension” bridge.
Day-long sorties by Indian Army choppers between its 20 Mountain Division headquarters at Binaguri, around 65 km from Jalpaiguri, and places inside Bhutan suggested that casualties are heavy.
An official statement from Bhutan said: “The Indian Army continues to cordon off and conduct complementary exercises along the Indo-Bhutan border. They have also been very helpful in air-lifting our wounded by helicopter. As a result, the wounded are receiving immediate treatment.”