As the Army readies to mount its biggest offensive against the ULFA, its prime target would be the banned outfit's 'elite' fighting unit - the 28th Battalion, whose cadres, the Army claims, have been trained at camps in Myanmar.
The battalion, with an estimated strength of 350-plus, is said to have masterminded and executed some of the worst massacres in upper Assam, including the latest round of serial killings of Hindi-speaking migrants.
"It also serves as the nerve centre of ULFA for planning kidnappings and extortion," said a senior officer of HQs 2 Mountain Division, showing a ransom note for Rs 30 lakh addressed to a tea estate manager and signed by 28th Battalion commander 'self-styled' Lieutenant Prabal Neog.
In a stinging message to ULFA, defence minister AK Antony had earlier said in Tezpur that the Army would do "whatever is needed" to restore normalcy in Assam. The minister, accompanied by defence secretary Shekhar Dutt and Army Chief General JJ Singh, visited Dinjan on Wednesday to take stock of the problem.
The Army has focussed on eliminating the leadership of the 28th Batallion since the end of last year's ephemeral ceasefire in September.
About 15 main cadres, including IED experts, have been eliminated in a string of operations conducted by crack teams. But the outfit continues to re-group and arm itself. Recent recoveries show that the ultras have access to universal machine guns, Chinese pistols, AK-47s, Austrian grenades, plenty of cash, RDX and IEDs. A lieutenant colonel said the success of the Army's campaign depended on its ability to generate intelligence, "but people in the hinterland are sometimes non-cooperative".
Other ULFA outfits active in Assam are the 27th and the 109th batallions, but these are not as "effective" as the 28th. Brigadier Amarjit Minhas, deputy GOC of the division, said that the training imparted to ULFA cadres was identical to that of the Indian Army, with special emphasis on weapon training and physical fitness.
During a visit to the Army's 3 Corps at Ranga Pahar in Nagaland on Wednesday, AK Antony emphasised that preserving peace required patience and restraint.
He said that despite the ceasefire with prominent separatist groups in Nagaland, factional clashes among them posed a security challenge. Antony said the government was placing special emphasis on the development of northeast and several new road, rail and other infrastructure projects were in the pipeline. "People here feel the region does not reflect the nation's progress. The government understands their problems," he added.