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Bhutan does in four days what Pak didn’t in 12 years

AFP

Thursday 18 December 2003

Article paru dans le Times of India, ?dition en ligne du jeudi 18 d?cembre 2003.

GUWAHATI: Bhutanese soldiers have captured more than half of the 30 Indian separatist bases in the tiny Himalayan kingdom as the military crackdown against the rebels entered its fourth day on Thursday, officials said.

"Our troops overran about 19 camps, including several key rebel bases in southern Bhutan," a Royal Bhutan Army commander said on the phone from capital Thimphu. "The militants are on the run and are fast losing control of their command."

Bhutan on Monday launched its first-ever modern military operation to evict three Indian separatist rebel groups that have set up illegal bases in the south of the kingdom.

Some 6,000 Bhutanese troops are involved in the offensive against the rebels who had ignored previous warnings to leave the tiny Buddhist kingdom. Two separatist groups from Assam - the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), as well as the separatist Kamatapur Liberation Organisation from West Bengal, have well-entrenched bases in Bhutan.

The groups are fighting for independent homelands in India and have been carrying out hit-and-run guerrilla strikes on federal soldiers from their bases in Bhutan for several years.

Ninety Indian separatists and 34 Bhutanese soldiers have been killed in the operation, Indian news agencies reported on Wednesday quoting unnamed Indian intelligence sources. There was no official confirmation of the toll from either New Delhi or Thimphu.

Bhutan said on Tuesday that 16 of its soldiers had been injured, four seriously, in retaliatory strikes by militants and had been evacuated by Indian army helicopters to Indian hospitals.

The ULFA military commander Paresh Baruah on Tuesday claimed government soldiers had killed five children at one of their camps in a mortar attack. "We are yet to get details about the total number of deaths and injured," Yashe Dorji, Director of Bhutan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said on the phone from the southern district headquarters of Samdrup Jongkhar.

The three rebel groups said they launched combined attacks overnight on Bhutanese soldiers with explosives and gunfire. "We have inflicted heavy casualties on the Bhutanese troops and in several areas the government soldiers were forced to retreat," Baruah said by telephone from an undisclosed location.

Indian intelligence officials say Bhutanese soldiers have captured several top rebel leaders. The ULFA Thursday admitted its chief spokesman Mithingia Daimary was among those arrested by Bhutanese troops.

Meanwhile, both the ULFA and the NDFB have appealed to Bhutan to stop the offensive. "We are ready to negotiate and talk with the Bhutan government," the ULFA commander said.

"We respect the sovereignty of Bhutan and our intention is not to harm and disturb the kingdom’s security." Bhutan said Wednesday it would call off the offensive against the separatists if they surrendered and agreed to leave the kingdom.

The military operations came after six years of failed talks with the rebels in Bhutan, a largely Buddhist kingdom of 700,000 people which has close political ties with India. More than 10,000 people have died during the insurgency in Assam in the past two decades.

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