Sun, Dec 21, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Bhutanese king leads troops on rebel offensive

REUTERS , GUWAHATI, INDIA

Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuk is leading his troops fighting to flush out Indian rebels holed up in the tiny Himalayan kingdom for the past 12 years, a Bhutanese official said yesterday.

The Buddhist kingdom launched its biggest-ever military offensive on Monday against around 3,000 guerrillas who have set up camps in its southern jungles and have been battling New Delhi's rule in India's remote northeast.

India has been pressing Bhutan for years to take action against the rebels who used to dart across the border for hit-and-run operations.

Bhutan, wedged between India and China, has rejected a ceasefire offer by the rebels and vowed to press on with its offensive in which more than 150 guerrillas have been killed.

About 500 rebels have surrendered to Bhutanese troops since the operation began.

"The king and his son are leading the troops in flushing Indian rebels out of Bhutanese soil," the government official, who did not want to be identified, said.

"Despite having led the troops, His Majesty is in good health and safe," he said, adding that the king was not directly involved in combat operations but was leading the troops.

As the operation entered its sixth day, the rebels fought back, killing a civilian and soldier, Indian police said.

A policeman said a group of heavily armed guerrillas with sophisticated weapons opened fire on a convoy of civilian vehicles, escorted by Bhutanese troops, about 40km from the Indian border, killing two and wounding many others.

Rebel groups called a two-day general strike from yesterday in the northeastern Indian state of Assam and parts of West Bengal to protest against the military offensive in Bhutan, but residents did not respond to the call.

A joint statement by three separatist groups -- the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the Kamatapur Liberation Organization (KLO) -- said on Friday the strike would continue indefinitely if the bodies of rebels were not returned to their families in 24 hours.

ULFA seeks Assam's separation from India. The NDFB is fighting for independence of Bodo tribals, estimated at 13 percent of Assam's total population of 26 million. KLO is a smaller organization seeking independence in north Bengal.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee met his Cabinet late Friday to discuss the drive against the separatists and thanked Bhutan for launching the military campaign.

"The Indian premier has appreciated the Bhutan king's proactive role and thinks of him as a genuine and trusted friend," a government official said after the meeting. "He would like Bangladesh to follow Bhutan's lead."

Bangladesh denies permitting any anti-Indian militants to operate from its soil. However officials in New Delhi charge that rebels cross the porous border with Bangladesh to carry out hit-and-run strikes against troops in India's troubled northeast.

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