After squeezing rebels, India's northeast ignites

When the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan rallied its army to flush Indian insurgents from its territory last winter, officials hailed it as the beginning of the end for some of the remote Northeast region's deadliest militant groups.

Hundreds of insurgents from the National Democratic Front of Bodoland and the United Liberation Front of Assam were forced from illegal training camps across the frontier into the waiting hands of the Indian Army. Small bombings near the Bhutan border in late January were mere "last licks'' by desperate fighters, Indian Lt. Gen. A.S. Jamawal assured visiting reporters.

It now appears the Bhutan operation only dispersed the insurgents, making the militant landscape more dangerous and less predictable, analysts say.

Over the weekend, a series of gun and bomb attacks killed more than 50 people in the Northeast states of Nagaland and Assam. Officials said early assessments pointed to the National Democratic Front of Bodoland.

"These are the unintended consequences of the action in Bhutan,'' says Ajai Sahni, editor of the South Asian Intelligence Review. "We had no containment strategy after Bhutan. You cannot crush them in one area without a strategy to contain them in others.''

As a result, Mr. Sahni says, "violence has spread to areas that had not been affected for years.''

The breadth and the death toll of Saturday's attacks seemed to shake a region trying recover from a dozen or more insurgencies that left over 20,000 dead in the past two decades.

On Saturday, in the worst-ever attack in Nagaland state, simultaneous bombs exploded on a railway platform and in a crowded shopping area in Dimapur, the state's largest city, killing at least 28 people. Local media said it was the first time Nagaland civilians had been targeted in a mass attack. In neighboring Assam state, militants believed to be with the National Democratic Front of Bodoland killed 22 people in attacks in 10 local districts. The violence continued Sunday as separatists bombed a gas pipeline, a tea plantation, a power line, and a market.

The Northeast has long been considered India's stepchild. The seven resource-rich states are underdeveloped and Army and paramilitary forces stationed there have brutal human rights records.

Wedged between Bangladesh to the south, Bhutan and China to the north, and Burma to the west, the region is home to dozens of ethnic and tribal groups, many with competing demands for autonomy, statehood, or independence from India. Many of the insurgencies are powered by conflicting land claims and immigration from Bangladesh.

Indian officials allege that the intelligence agencies of Bangladesh and Pakistan provide the militants with training and sanctuary across the southern border, which Bangladeshi officials deny vehemently.

The strongest and most successful of the Northeast insurgent groups is the National Socialist Council of Nagaland. The dominant NSCN faction holds sway over the state of Nagaland and surrounding areas and is in ongoing peace talks with the central government.

It's highly unlikely a Naga group would have carried out the Dimapur bombings, says Sanjoy Hazarika, a scholar at the Center for Northeast Studies. "They're very specific in who they target.''

Most other Northeast insurgent groups have received arms, training, or both from the NSCN, making Sunday's attacks in Dimapur more mysterious. NSCN is vowing to find and punish the culprits, setting the stage for possible future clashes between local militant groups.

Another factor in the violence may be Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi's recent offer of a truce with the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). On Saturday, ULFA chief Paresh Baruah rejected the truce offer, insisting that the Indian central government take part in negotiations.

ULFA, which was also damaged in the winter Bhutan operation, has since roared back to life. On August 15, a blast at an Independence Day parade killed 18 people including many mothers and children. Other attacks have followed.

"It was a very serious move [by the government] to propose discussions,'' says Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, a pro-ULFA newspaper editor. "There are vested interests that oppose discussions. It could be one of several groups.''

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