From millions to peanuts, ULFA change extortion tactics

By Syed Zarir Hussain,

Guwahati, May 17 (IANS) From extorting big amounts from business houses to accepting peanuts from small traders, the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has changed its fund-raising drive to collect whatever money its cadres can lay their hands on.

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“There are still some reports of extortions going on in different places. The ULFA nowadays are collecting small amounts and so many people do not come and report such incidents to police,” Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi said.

Most rebel groups in the northeast, including the ULFA, depend on extortion money to purchase weapons to run their military campaigns against security forces.

“There was a time when the ULFA extorted huge amounts of money only from big businesses and tea plantations. Today the outfit serves extortion notices to even petty traders,” a senior police official said Thursday requesting not to be named.

Police and intelligence officials said the change in tactics by the ULFA to extort small amounts of money came after many people refused their demands and reported such matters to authorities.

“When someone is served an extortion notice and asked to pay an amount of say Rs.20,000 or Rs.40,000, he or she tries to settle the matter without involving police. This is what is happening today,” the official said.

The ULFA last month kidnapped the state-run Food Corporation of India’s executive director Phulchand Ram from Guwahati and have sought a Rs.2 million ransom for his release. More than a month later, Ram is still in captivity.

There were reports with police that ULFA rebels were even forcing villagers to donate bicycles and motorcycles besides mobile phone handsets. “There was an instance of a villager being asked to donate five bicycles and in one case a small time trader was asked to give five mobile SIM cards,” an intelligence official said.

The ULFA was earlier targeting the tea industry in Assam – at least 20 planters were killed and more than two dozens kidnapped for ransom in the past two decades.

Tea industry sources unofficially admit to having coughed up an estimated Rs.200 million as ransom to secure the release of abducted executives since insurgency took roots in Assam in the early 1980s.

Apart from the change in fund raising drive, the ULFA has also changed its terror tactics – shifting from the conventional hit-and-run guerrilla strikes on security forces to urban guerrilla warfare.

“This is a bad trend with the ULFA now triggering explosions in crowded cities and towns by strapping bombs on motorcycles. They simply come and park their motorcycles in a parking lot and vanish,” the chief minister said.

There have been at least a dozen such explosions – five of them in Guwahati city alone.

Authorities are now planning to intensify vigil and frisk motorcycles and scooters in parking lots in Guwahati before the owner is allowed to leave.

However, Gogoi admitted: “It is physically impossible to check each and every vehicle to see if someone is carrying a bomb or other explosives.”

The ULFA is among the most powerful rebel group in India’s northeast – the outfit is blamed for fresh attacks on Hindi-speaking migrants that left 10 dead in the last three days in separate attacks.

More than 10,000 people have lost their lives to insurgency in Assam during the past two decades.