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Panic looms as migrants flee Assam

Despite the army crackdown on ULFA, trains and buses are packed tight with home-bound Hindi-speaking migrants.

india Updated: Jan 10, 2007 12:34 IST

Trains and buses are packed tight with Hindi-speaking migrant workers fleeing violence-torn Assam despite a massive military crackdown on separatists after 72 people were killed, officials said on Wednesday.

A government spokesperson said three more militants of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) were killed in gun battles since Monday as some 10,000 army, police and paramilitary personnel raided separatist bases.

"The operations are on in full swing and no fresh attacks on Hindi-speaking people have been reported since Monday evening," spokesperson and Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said.

Despite the heavy deployment of soldiers, however, hundreds of panic-stricken Hindi-speaking people have fled the state and many more are waiting for trains or buses out of Assam.

"One never knows when ULFA will strike again. It is better to leave the state then get killed here," said Abhay Kumar Singh, a milkman from Bihar's Khagaria district.

Singh has worked near Doomdooma in eastern Assam's Tinsukia district for six years. His cousin was among those killed in a senseless weekend attack at a brick kiln in eastern Assam.

"I was reluctant to leave as there is no work back home in Bihar. But after seeing people of my community packing up, I am scared to stay back," added Hari Prasad Yadav, a brick kiln worker. "The situation here is frightening."

Railway officials said trains moving out of Assam were packed with people, most of them heading for Bihar.

"The rush is unusual and most people boarding trains are Hindi-speaking migrant workers," a railway official said.

Authorities were trying to stem the exodus by opening government-run shelters to house migrant workers under security cover.

"Hundreds are staying in government camps," the minister said.

Indian Defence Minister AK Antony, who arrived in Assam on Tuesday night accompanied by Army Chief Gen JJ Singh, said the government would meet the "ULFA's challenge sternly".

"We hope to restore normalcy within a few days. We cannot permit this kind of attacks. (We will) meet the situation strongly," Antony said.

But security analysts said a military offensive could not bring permanent peace to the region that is being wracked by separatist violence since 1979 when ULFA was formed to wage a war for independence.

"Violence cannot be dealt with violence. The military operations can at best bring the present situation under control for some days or months," said R Mooshahary, a former chief of the Border Security Force.

"New Delhi should somehow try to open peace talks with ULFA if they want to see a permanent end to insurgency."

Efforts to bring the ULFA leadership for direct talks with New Delhi failed because of differences over the release of five jailed rebel leaders - a precondition of the outfit.

Mediators chosen by ULFA, including peace activists from the state, to hold talks with New Delhi blamed New Delhi for the breakdown of negotiations between the two sides in October.

"The latest killings are horrifying. But New Delhi must take up the responsibility for such a situation as they were not sincere in holding talks with ULFA," said Indira Goswami, a noted Assamese writer who was sought by ULFA to mediate with the government.

In 2000, the rebels killed at least 100 Hindi speakers in similar well-planned attacks after vowing to rid the state of all "non-Assamese workers".