Rebel groups in the northeast seem to be working on a new strategy of hitting the armed forces when the latter have lowered their guard, as exemplified by Thursday’s attack in Manipur that killed 18 soldiers.
An ambush each in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur since April by the NSCN-K (National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang) has had a pattern. The targets were armed forces not in full gear or in combat mode.
On April 2, five days after the NSCN-K unilaterally called off a truce with New Delhi, rebels ambushed an administrative convoy of 4 Rajput battalion near Khonsa in Arunachal Pradesh. The attack left three soldiers dead and four injured.
Thursday’s attack was also on an administrative convoy, this time of 6 Dogra battalion, at Larjong in Manipur’s Chandel district. The battalion was on de-induction or moving out of a base near the Myanmar border and the rebel ambush killed 18 of the convoy's 46 members.
Unlike a combat convoy that moves prepared for conflict, an administrative convoy is relatively relaxed in its movement.
In between these two operations, the NSCN-K killed eight Assam Rifles personnel who had gone to fetch water from a source in Nagaland’s Changlangshu area close to the Myanmar border.
“Rebels chose to be head-on earlier. For instance, the NSCN in May 1981 attacked an army outpost in Tuensang district (Nagaland), killed 12 soldiers and looted arms and ammunition,” a senior army officer said, seeking anonymity.
“They repeated it on an Assam Rifles outpost at Oinam (Manipur) in July 1987 and killed nine soldiers. The strategy now seems to attack the armed forces when the chances of retaliation are slim,” the officer said.
The strategy, according to a central intelligence officer, also bears the hallmark of the role played by Paresh Baruah, chief of the United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent, who claims to have cobbled up a front of four rebel outfits, including his own. The front is named United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia.
“The ULFA has always banked on hit-and-run operations and avoided direct confrontation with the armed forces, except for killing 10 soldiers in an IED blast at Darrang (Assam) in April 1993. If it claims to be behind the recent strikes, its idea of playing it safer is showing,” the officer said.
Security experts trashed the theory that Thursday’s ambush was in retaliation against the killing of a woman by the armed forces in a counter-insurgency operation.
“Such ambushes need days, if not weeks, of planning after studying the movement and activity of armed forces units. The woman’s death could be an excuse,” said a retired police officer, who headed counter-insurgency operations in Assam.