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India signs peace pact with rebel group

NEW DELHI – The Indian government on Saturday signed a pact with one of India’s oldest rebel groups to end militant violence in the restive northeastern state of Assam and pave the way for peace talks.


The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the largest separatist outfit in Assam, is seeking an autonomous ethnic region the state, but within the Indian union.


Under the agreement, signed by representatives of the national and Assam governments and ULFA, the guerrilla group vowed not to stage any attacks while the search for a political resolution to the dispute was underway.


The government also promised not to take any military action against ULFA members.


The accord came a month after ULFA, which has been fighting for a homeland for ethnic Assamese since 1979, set out its demands in the first formal peace talks with the government.


The group announced a unilateral ceasefire in July.


The agreement “is the harbinger for future talks,” India’s Home Affairs Joint Secretary for the northeast, Shambhu Singh, told reporters in New Delhi.


In the past two decades, more than 10,000 people have lost their lives to the insurgency in Assam, a region known for its tea, timber and oil reserves.


Under the agreement, members of the rebel group — numbering around 600 — will be put in special camps.


ULFA said, however, that it would not surrender its arms and ammunition.


“Why should we? This is not a final agreement,” a senior leader of the group, Sashadhar Choudhury, told reporters.


“This is a gentleman’s agreement. We will see how the parleys go forward.”


Public support for the ULFA has dwindled in recent years after a series of attacks in public places that resulted in heavy civilian casualties.


The ULFA leadership used to operate out of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, but the movement was severely weakened by a 2009 crackdown by the Bangladeshi authorities, under pressure from India.


The lone hold-out to the peace process has been ULFA’s military commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah, who is believed to be hiding with around 100 armed cadres somewhere along the Myanmar-China border.

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