ULFA ‘defers’ action on Quippo employees

The separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) says it has ‘deferred action’ against two employees of hydrocarbon company Quippo Oil & Gas Infrastructure Ltd who were kidnapped in December by their armed cadres.

ULFA ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Barua called some journalists, including this writer, to inform that ‘expiry of ultimatum does not mean death penalty.’

Barua, who often calls up journalists to spin publicity mileage, said “the ULFA has taken into account appeals made by Assamese civil society and leading citizens seeking release of the two Quippo employees”.

“So though our ultimatum for payment expired on February 16, we are not going to take any drastic action against the two employees,” Barua said over phone.

Reliable sources close to the ULFA have said that the two employees, P.K Gogoi and Ram Kumar, had been moved to an ULFA base in Myanmar’s Sagaing province last week on expiry of the deadline for ransom set by the ULFA.

One source close to the ULFA said the two had been kept in the base in Changlang anticipating payment of ransom and the subsequent release which would be easier and faster if the two were in Indian territory.

“But now they have been moved away into Myanmar to take them out of the strike range of Indian security forces because the ULFA leadership were anticipating a snatch raid,” the source said, but was unwilling to be identified.

Arunachal police have said they were continuing search operations for the two employees in Changlang.

Meanwhile, the Assam government has appealed to the ULFA to release them soonest.

“We earnestly request Paresh Barua to release the duo… We don’t want Assam and India to be painted red with blood… If something unfortunate happens to the two persons, then Assam’s head will hang in shame. Our community will be compared to Talibans,” said senior Assam Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.

Sarma, who heads the BJP-led NEDA coalition in Northeast, said it would be “very unfortunate if something were to happen to these two Quippo employees, P.K. Gogoi and Ram Kumar.

The United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) last week in a statement had warned of “extreme steps” against the two Quippo employees since the expected ransom asked for them was not yet paid.

A ULFA-I statement, signed by its “publicity cell” member Rumel Asom, said that ‘extreme steps’ were being considered next week against the two since the deadline had expired on February 16.

Rumel Asom also said in the statement that Quippo would be henceforth “prohibited” from carrying out work in the entire Southeast Asia region, meaning Northeast which ULFA considers not as part of India but as ‘Western South-east Asia’.

Gogoi, a drilling superintendent, and Kumar, a radio operator, were kidnapped by ULFA militants from a drilling site near Innao in Arunachal Pradesh’s Changlang district on December 21.

Intelligence official said the ULFA initially demanded Rs 20 crores for releasing them but then scaled down the demand to half that amount. There were indications it might be prepared to settle for still less.

But it seems the rebel leaders were bugged by Quippo’s refusal to concede to payment of ransom.

Quippo is into onshore drilling services and have been drilling one of the prospective sites in Changlang.

Gogoi is from Assam’s Sibsagar district while Ram Kumar is from Bihar’s Khagaria district.

Intelligence veterans say the ULFA may not kill the two because one of them is from Assam — and also because it serves them right to keep the pot boiling over the abductions.

Former IB official Benu Ghosh , with long experience in Assam, says the abductions have brought the ULFA back in news .

“Publicity is oxygen for all rebel groups and the ULFA loves to thrive on publicity. Belatedly that has not happened and Paresh Barua must be feeling his growing irrelevance in Assam. The abductions keeps him and ULFA in news and they would love to prolong the crisis for effective headline management,” Ghosh said.

Former Deputy DG of Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) , Major General Gaganjit Singh told this writer that Paresh Barua would be counting on Assam’s pre-poll scenario to strike a big ransom and also garner much-needed publicity.

“If they manage to strike fear through this abduction, hydrocarbon companies exploring in Assam and Arunachal and tea estates will begin to pay up subscriptions to fill the ULFA’s coffers. That election in Assam is only few months away may also help because candidates contesting in areas with ULFA presence may start paying up. This is all about underground economics, like the underworld economics of Mumbai,” said Gaganjit Singh, who commanded a division in Assam before joining the DIA.

The ULFA has often created such a crisis by kidnapping top executives of tea and hydrocarbon companies and dragged them on for publicity. Very rarely have the ULFA killed hostages — usually they have managed to wriggle out ransom.

They killed a Russian coal expert Sergei Gritshenko in 1991 when he killed a ULFA cadre in an attempt to scale and an ONGC hostage B. Raju was killed when caught in a crossfire between ULFA rebels and Indian troops the same year.

That was when the ULFA, at the peak of its strength, had kidnapped a dozen government officials and oil and coal executives immediately after Hiteswar Saikia, known for his tough anti-rebel stance, had taken over as the Chief Minister of Assam.