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Bhutan Launches Offensive Against Indian Separatists - 2003-12-16

Bhutan's army has launched its first offensive against Indian separatist rebels inside the tiny Himalayan kingdom. The rebels have been accused of using Bhutan as a base to launch attacks in the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam over the past several years.

It is Bhutan's first modern military operation. An estimated 6,000 soldiers from the Royal Bhutanese Army are taking part in sweeps against Indian rebels through the dense forests along the border with India.

The army Tuesday attacked several camps, including a headquarters for one group, known as the United Liberation Front of Asom.

The operation has the support of Indian forces, thousands of whom have been deployed to seal India's side of the border. Officials in New Delhi say Indian troops will arrest any insurgents they encounter.

Officials say three thousand Indian insurgents operate from at least 30 bases inside Bhutan. For 12 years they have used the camps to store weapons, run training and to launch hit-and-run attacks in the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal.

Those states are in India's remote northeast, bordering both Bhutan and Bangladesh. The insurgency began about 25 years ago, when people from the Bodo and Assamese ethnic groups grew resentful of population shifts in the region.

Bharat Karnad is a security analyst with the New Delhi think tank, the Center for Policy Research. "Their disenchantment started with the infiltration of Bangladeshi nationals into Assam, and since then and the situation has escalated and now it's a confrontation with the center," he says.

There are three groups involved in the insurgency, the United Liberation Front of Asom, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland and Kamtapur Liberation Organization. Their aspirations range from independence to greater autonomy for the region.

The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan is one of the world's last absolute monarchies. King Jigme Singye Wangchuk has been fiercely protective of his country's isolation, limiting the number of foreign visitors each year and only recently allowing in modern forms of communication such as the Internet and mobile phones.

Mr. Karnad says Bhutan was forced to act against the Indian insurgents in its territory. "I think they hope that they would be able to talk them out of Bhutan… But all these years of trying to do so have failed," he says.

The Indian government says it welcomes the operation, which it hopes will help bring peace to Assam. A Bhutanese government official says the militants had been disrupting the building of infrastructure projects in the border areas.