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ULFA strikes to show it still has power

By Syed Zarir Hussain, IANS

Guwahati : The separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has struck with a vengeance, killing five people and injuring more than 50 in a string of bomb attacks Sunday — seen as a deliberate attempt to negate claims by top army commanders that the rebel group was wilting under pressure from security forces.

The ULFA, fighting for an independent homeland since its inception 1979, has been facing major reverses since an assault on its camps by the Bhutan army in December 2003. But its biggest setback has been the capture of two of its high-profile commanders in recent months, the latest on Sep 17.

“I am not surprised at the renewed attacks by the ULFA because after the arrest of its top commander Prabal Neog by the Assam Police near Tezpur on Sep 17, the rebel group was bound to send out a strong signal that it was capable of striking like before,” Noni Gopal Mahanta, who heads the Peace and Conflict Studies Centre at the Gauhati University, told IANS.

Neog, 43, was the commander of ULFA’s ’28th battalion’, known to be the most potent of its four fighting units. From its bases across the border in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division, the hit-squads of the ’28th battalion’ roam the eastern Assam districts of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Sivasagar, attacking soft targets.

Last year, Mrinal Hazarika, who used to command the ’28th battalion’ before Neog, was captured from a hotel in Siliguri in West Bengal, along with three of his colleagues, jolting the ULFA’s fighting unit.

During the past 12 months, beginning September 2006, the army’s 2nd Mountain Division, based in eastern Assam, has neutralised scores of ULFA militants.

“We have neutralised 177 ULFA militants since Sep 24, 2006 including one battalion commander (Rajiv Kalita of the ’27th battalion’), four company commanders, 10 action group commanders and seven experts in improvised explosive devices (IED),” an army official said.

On Sep 26, barely 10 days after Neog fell into the police dragnet, the General Officer Commanding of the Army’s Tezpur-based IV Corps, Lt Gen B.S. Jaswal, told journalists here that the ULFA could well be heading for a split, unable to “absorb the aftershocks” of the reverses it has faced in recent months.

It is true the ULFA has been at the receiving end since the temporary ceasefire with the government was snapped in September last year, but the rebel group has struck every time a top army general or an important government functionary makes ‘gung-ho remarks’.

Before the latest serial bombings Sunday, the ULFA was blamed for a string of attacks and explosions across Assam since January in which about 120 people were killed, most of them Hindi-speaking migrant workers.