The Assam government on Wednesday announced it would hold peace talks with the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) whether or not the outfit's elusive commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah joins the negotiations.
"We are soon going to initiate the peace process with the ULFA. We would like Paresh Baruah to come and join the talks, but cannot wait indefinitely for him to respond," Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi told journalists.
Gogoi made this announcement after the state cabinet on Wednesday approved to start peace talks with the ULFA.
The decision comes a day after Union Home Minister P Chidambaram announced in Guwahati that the chief minister would take up matters pertaining to peace talks with the ULFA, with New Delhi lending full support to such an initiative.
"We would work out the modalities for the talks and decide soon as to what needs to be done to open the talks with the ULFA," the chief minister said.
Gogoi, however, refused to elaborate if the government would release the top jailed ULFA leaders before the talks start.
The entire top brass of the ULFA, barring Paresh Baruah, is in jail. Baruah is rumoured to be in China after Bangladesh, where the ULFA had set up camps and he had taken refuge, started a crackdown on the Assam insurgents.
The imprisoned leaders include chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, deputy commander-in-chief Raju Baruah, self-styled foreign secretary Sasha Choudhury, finance secretary Chitrabon Hazarika, cultural secretary Pranati Deka, and ULFA's political ideologue Bhimkanta Buragohain.
Two other leaders - vice chairman Pradeep Gogoi and publicity chief Mithinga Daimary - got bail two months ago after the prosecution did not oppose their plea - a move seen as an attempt by the government to let the two drum up public opinion for talks.
The jailed ULFA leaders are demanding their release, saying talks cannot be held with handcuffs on.
"We are going to hold talks only if we are released," the jailed ULFA chairman told journalists last fortnight when he was brought to court for hearing.