India is likely to seek Myanmar’s help to track down militants who killed 18 soldiers in Manipur, sources said on Friday, as army chief General Dalbir Singh flew to Imphal and the National Investigation Agency took over the probe.
Security personnel launched a massive combing operation involving hundreds of soldiers on foot, backed by helicopters, in the remote mountainous forests close to Myanmar but intelligence sources fear the rebels may have already crossed the 390-km porous border.
“We have approached the Myanmar army in the past to coordinate our actions on both sides of the border. It remains to be seen what will come of it,” Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia, a former director general of military operations, told HT.
Back in Delhi, senior NIA officials helped Manipur Police lodge an FIR, a day after guerrillas attacked soldiers with rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices barely 15km from the border. A crack team of investigators will soon be dispatched to the state.
“Home secretary LC Goyal has already informed NIA chief Sharad Kumar about the government’s decision to bring in the federal anti-terror agency given the international ramifications of the case,” said a home ministry official. The army plans to ask Myanmar forces to raid insurgent camps on their soil.
The attack on a Dogra Regiment convoy in Chandel district also left 11 personnel injured and was the worst hit on the army in over 20 years with sources indicating a possible intelligence failure.
The government asked forces to respond strongly but sources said the Myanmar army – that has targeted insurgents in the past – didn’t have much influence in belts where the militant outfits were based, raising doubts about the efficacy of the coordination between the two sides.
“An immediate retaliatory strike may not be possible. The militants may have crossed over into Myanmar,” said another officer, considered an authority on the northeast.
The Indian army is also recalibrating its strategy and improving intelligence collection and analysis to be more effective against militants in the Northeast, a senior officer said.
Security sources said 25 men from the NSCN-Khaplang group along with fighters of the Meitei terrorist group Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) had likely carried out Thursday’s ambush.
Those killed were mostly in their 20s and 30s, hailing from Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. Their bodies will be sent home in the next couple of days.
“The Khaplang group wants to show its relevance after two senior rebels broke away. When it broke off a ceasefire with the Centre in March, the breakaway group inked a pact with the government. Security forces have been attacked over six times since,” said a senior official.
Manipur’s deputy chief minister, Gaikhangam, assured the army of all support. “The state will provide assistance to the paramilitary forces to tackle insurgency problem,” he said.
Former army chief General Deepak Kapoor said there could be no kneejerk reaction to the deadly ambush as the army had refined its Northeast strategy over a long period of time. “Some drills and procedures may not have been appropriately followed. Such things can happen if you let your guard down,” he added.
Encounters with armed forces and ambushes have returned to haunt the Northeast after the NSCN(K) junked a 14-year-old ceasefire in March.
Since then, security personnel have struggled to contain unrest despite the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act giving them extraordinary powers and legal immunity – a factor that activist Irom Sharmila said was responsible for the attack.