ULFA, government begin Assam peace talks (Roundup)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

NEW DELHI/GUWAHATI - Leaders of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) Thursday met Home Minister P. Chidambaram here Thursday to mark the start of long-awaited peace talks aimed at ending 30 long years of insurgency in Assam.

History was created when an eight-member ULFA team headed by its chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa met Chidambaram at his North Block office for the first round of formal peace talks, more than three decades after the outfit was formed in 1979 seeking to carve out an independent homeland in Assam.

Details of the discussions were not available but home ministry officials said the meeting was “more of introductory in nature”.

Chidambaram later told reporters that “the ULFA leadership has agreed for unconditional peace talks, and from our side we are committed for a just and honourable solution of the conflict”.

The ULFA team later met senior officials led by Home Secretary G.K. Pillai along with central government-appointed interlocutor P.C. Haldar.

“It was a historic day for us with the first round of formal talks concluding on a very cordial note although there was no fixed agenda from either side,” ULFA leader Sasha Choudhury, who was part of the delegation, told IANS after the meeting at the home ministry.

The ULFA leadership is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi Monday although it would only be a courtesy call.

Addressing a press conference after the talks, Choudhury said the outfit had noted Manmohan Singh’s statement that the Indian constitution was flexible enough to accommodate the aspirations of all people.

“We proposed (to the government) to evaluate various facets of the constitution and to explore the viability of protection and enrichment of the sovereignty of the people of Assam in all its dimensions — political, social and cultural.”

The much-hyped talks hit a major roadblock when elusive ULFA commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah rejected the initiative.

Baruah, said to be hiding in the Myanmar-China border area, said in an email statement: “We cannot support the peace talks as the ULFA leadership led by Rajkhowa is under the influence of our enemy (government).”

Asked about this, Choudhury said it was a decision of the outfit’s highest decision making body. “Baruah is still our commander-in-chief.

“We were compelled to hold peace talks as our General Council resolved to open negotiations with the government. It is the wish of the people of Assam that we go for peace talks.”

Asked about ULFA’s role in the coming Assam assembly elections, Choudhury said: “We have been saying we have zero involvement in the elections.” But he didn’t urgem the people to boycott the elections.

The ULFA, one of the biggest rebel outfits in the tea and oil-rich region of Assam, has fought for an independent homeland for ethnic Assamese since 1979.

At least 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in Assam because of fighting between government forces and various rebel groups.

The Assam government welcomed the talks.

“We are happy the peace process initiated by the Assam government has reached a stage when the first round of formal talks has started,” Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi told IANS in Guwahati.

He said the government was “still hopeful (that) Paresh Baruah would endorse the peace process”.

All the eight ULFA leaders who took part in the talks Thursday are out on bail, with the government facilitating their release from jail in order to pave the way for negotiations.

Apart from Rajhkowa, the other ULFA leaders who were in the talks include vice chairman Pradep Gogoi, deputy commander-in-chief Raju Baruah, self-styled foreign secretary Sasha Choudhury, finance secretary Chitraban Hazarika, cultural secretary Pranati Deka and political ideologue Bhimkanta Buragohain.

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