The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Army antenna up for Bhutan call

New Delhi, Dec. 17: The Indian Army can step into Bhutan in aid of the Royal Bhutan Army in its operation against insurgents on a request from Thimphu.

A high-level source here said the political leadership in India is keeping the option of direct involvement in operations on the ground. But this would be on a specific request from Bhutan.

As of now, the king of Bhutan during his talk with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee over the weekend informed him that the Bhutanese army was going ahead with its operation.

Despite unofficial reports that some top militant leaders have been caught, the Bhutanese embassy here reported that few leaders of the insurgent outfits have been found in the camps. “Besides the armed women cadres, there are only wives and children of the leaders and senior cadres in the camps,” a statement from the embassy said.

In communications from Thimphu, New Delhi has been requested that the operation should not be identified as one directed by India. For more than two years, India has been urging Bhutan to act against the insurgents but Thimphu wanted to exhaust all possibilities of negotiation.

For contingency, the Indian Army has identified units that can step into Bhutan if called upon to do so. Between six and 10 battalions of two divisions from the 33 Corps (based in north Bengal) and the 4 Corps (headquartered in Tezpur, Assam) have been activated. Much of these battalions have been deployed on the border.

Indian Army aviation corps helicopters are also evacuating casualties of the Bhutanese army.

Estimates of casualties in the operations vary widely with two different sources in the army quoting figures of 90 and 120. No break-up was immediately available.

Casualties have been heaviest for the insurgents but the Bhutanese army has also lost some troops, some of them to mine explosions. One source said fighting was heaviest in and near the camps of NDFB militants.

A greater involvement of the Indian Army will depend, apart from Thimphu’s request, on the number of casualties suffered by the Bhutanese army and an assessment of the operation.

Special units of the Indian Army have in the past operated inside Bhutan in hot pursuit of militants, mostly from the border in Assam.

The statement from the Bhutan embassy said: “The Royal Bhutan Army is continuing with its exercise to flush out the three armed Indian separatist groups from their 30 well-fortified camps.

“This began yesterday at 9 am along the entire southern region comprising four districts. The total number of militants who are extremely well armed is in excess of 3,000. Located on strategic heights in rugged jungle terrain, the camps are usually guarded by a series of outposts and landmines.”

The statement added that “the Royal Government is maintaining close contact and consultations with the Government of India in removing the three insurgent groups from Bhutan”.

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