Vol. 4 Num 202 Fri. December 19, 2003  

Bhutan captures most of ULFA bases

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 Thursday, officials said.

"Our troops overran about 19 camps, including several key rebel bases in southern Bhutan," a Royal Bhutan Army commander told AFP by telephone 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 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 by telephone 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.

Bhutanese soldiers travel in a pick up truck about 18km from the Sandrup Jongkhar district in Bhutan on Wednesday some 145km south of the Indian city of Guwahati. Some 90 Indian separatists and 34 Bhutanese soldiers were killed in a military crackdown in the Himalayan kingdom while many other members of the Bhutanese army were injured in the operation launched on December 15. PHOTO: AFP