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'The defence authorities are deliberately adopting dilatory tactics'

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Five months after the incident, the seized weapons have not been handed over to the CBI despite several requests; attempts to interrogate defence personnel who took part in the operation have been repeatedly blocked; and relevant log books and papers sought by the investigators are yet to reach them. 'The defence authorities are deliberately adopting dilatory tactics,' complain CBI sources.

CBI officers even say the deadlock has been referred to the PMO but are sceptical about being allowed to go the whole hog given the nature of the case. Its sensitivity can be gauged from the bulk of information so far gathered from the detained foreigners. And their version of what had happened on February 9 and after is completely different from the story contained in the defence FIR.

There was no encounter, the detainees have told the Andaman police in Port Blair. If anything, it was coldblooded slaughter.

Their story began on the night of February 8. They were members of the AA, which is fighting Burmese ethnic domination and the State Peace and Development Council, Myanmar's repressive military junta. The contingent also had a few members of the Karen National Army, an ally of the AA in its anti-junta fight. 'I along with my leader Khaing Raza started from the Thai-Myanmar border. My leader told me, in Landfall Island, we have no problem. India government allow us all times,' recounted one of the detainees.

There were 43 of them when they sailed out of the Thai waters in two speedboats laden with sophisticated arms. They were to briefly halt at Landfall and then proceed to Cox's Bazar, in Bangladesh, from where the arms were to be sent to their comrades in the Arakan hills.

On their way to Landfall, they accosted and captured two Thai trawlers with 36 fishermen for refusing to pay a 'routine tax' to the AA. Now, four boats, with 79 men in all, sailed again, reaching Narcondum Island at 7 pm on February 9.

They were already aware of Indian ships stationed off Landfall Island. Ordinary poachers or smugglers would have fled immediately. But these boats waited, confidently.

Khaing Raza, a NUPA politburo member and commander-in-chief of the Arakan Army and leader of the mission, had once spoken to Saw Tun, his member two, over the wireless before the boats reached Narcodum. In accordance with their plan, explained the detainees, Saw Tun had already arrived at Landfall with Indian army officers, who were there to receive the Arakanese boats. And now, from Narcondum, Khaing Raza contacted Saw Tun again over the VHF, informing his deputy about his arrival. Nothing happened after that. 'That night we slept near Narcondum Island,' said one detainee.

The next morning, at 10 am, the wireless crackled again. On the other end was Saw Tun, calling from Landfall, and in response to that beckoning call the flotilla weighed anchor. The smaller speedboat, said to be fitted with Volvo engines and capable of doing 35 knots, surged ahead of the rest. It carried on board Khaing Raza, and his close comrades Pado Mulway (in charge of the AA's marine operations), Colonel Thein Aung Khyaw (a member of the NUPA central committee), Captain Myint Shwe (of the Karen National Army) and Pho Cho, the vessel's pilot.

When the speedboats, with trawlers in tow, boldly passed through the cordon of naval ships and reached Landfall towards the evening, they were warmly welcomed by a reception party that included among others Lt-Col Grewal. Apparently, there was much handshaking and embracing. Five bottles of rum were produced and toasts raised; a small camp site was cleared; food was arranged and there was merrymaking around the campfire that night.

That very evening, they were asked to display their weapons. The request did not strike them as ominous or even fishy. The arms were unloaded from the speedboats and laid on the shore in full view of the Indian armymen.

At 8 am on February 11, an Indian naval ship was seen taking up position close to Landfall Island. The unsuspecting Arakanese soldiers were told, in Myanmarese, that an Indian leader would soon arrive by helicopter, and breakfast would be 'taken together' once he arrived. Moments later, six top members of the AA were led away by two Indian officers inside a patch of forest 'to greet the leader at the helicopter landing point'. Among them were Khaing Raza, Saw Tun and Pado Mulway.

As soon as the six disappeared into the wood, Indian securitymen brandished their carbines and ordered the rest to throw up their hands. They did. They had no choice. And as they stood with their hands raised, they were blind-folded and their hands tied by Indian soldiers. Then they heard what they thought was the whirr of a descending chopper. And the unmistakable sound of gun shots.

They never saw the six men again.

Why are the defence forces stonewalling the CBI investigation? Were these men gunrunners 'waging war' against India as claimed by the fortress commander in his FIR, or are they indeed members of the Arakan Army who have had close links with the Indian defence establishment? Did India decide to double cross and liquidate the cream of the Arakanese rebel force to please the Myanmarese junta?

Home Secretary B P Singh has gone on record saying that the Indian army had been tipped off about the arms shipment by the Myanmarese authorities. The defence forces had, according to him, acted on the basis of that information.

But this appears to be a piece of disinformation in the light of the claims made by NUPA in a letter, dated April 25, to the Indian defence minister.

The letter written by Khin Maung, in-charge of foreign affairs, NUPA, stated the following:

'Those who have been captured in the incident of 'Operation Leech' on the Andaman Islands on February 11 this year are the members of our organisation. NUPA and AA. They are neither armed smugglers nor gun-runners to anti-Indian N-E rebels.

'They are our men carrying our own belongings for our Arakan independence war against the Burma colonists.'

Next, the NUPA goes on to add what it calls three 'extraordinary points' that show the Indian army's close ties with the AA and expose the Indian defence establishment's complicity in this so-called gunrunning expedition that was frustrated by Operation Leech.

The letter states:

'The Indian military intelligence officer Colonel Grewal had been fully briefed about the February 8 AA expedition on January 8. Detailed photos of combat and non-combat materials and the list of men who were to be on board had also been given to him.

'To have army-to-army relationship, Saw Tun, the CEC of NUPA and a member of the military committee of AA, was assigned as an equivalent of military attache to liaise with the Indian defence authorities since February 13, 1997.'

And that the expedition proceeded in coordination with the Indian defence services through Colonel Grewal.

We are in possession of a copy of this NUPA letter along with lists of the AA fighters and the arms involved. There is also the copy of a letter by Khaing Raza, dated February 13, 1997, authorising Saw Tun to deal with the Indian defence authorities.

We also spoke to Khim Maung, NUPA's foreign affairs in charge and the writer of the letter. How could he be sure that Lt-Colonel Grewal had been informed about the AA expedition in Thailand in January? 'Because I was there,' said Maung. 'Grewal was in Bangkok between 8 and 10 January, staying in a hotel with Saw Tun, discussing the plan.'

So, what was Grewal doing with Saw Tun a senior member of AA's military committee, in Bangkok? And, for that matter, what was he doing with Saw Tun in Delhi on February 5, six days before the Arakanese rebel leader was to be slain on Landfall?

Sources in Delhi say Saw Tun was in the capital that day and had met the army officer. Saw Tun, disclose the sources, had left Delhi on the morning of February 6 by an Indian Air Force plane.

They are unable to say where Saw Tun went directly from Delhi, but insist that he was to be present at Landfall Island along with Indian defence personnel to receive the Arakanese mission being led by Khaing Raza. Significantly, the accounts of the detainees do seem to corroborate this piece of information.

What's more, the seizure list accompanying the FIR lodged by the fortress commander is a major giveaway. Among the many things included in the 'list of other items' under 'Exhibit D' are 50 pieces of Arakan Army vests and 12 pairs of Arakan Army uniform (pant and shirt). Also seized were 'Burma maps/charts'. These materials do seem to suggest very strongly that the men involved were indeed members of the AA.

So what had really happened at Landfall? The versions of A & N fortress commander Commodore A S Rai and those of the captives vary wildly. Were some of the slain men indeed laising with the Indian army for nearly a year as claimed by NUPA? Were the six actually killed in an encounter as claimed in the FIR or were they shot, as the captives say, after being received and feted as friends? Was Operation Leech a convincing victory against international gun-runners or did it amount to human rights violation of the most despicable kind? And why, may we ask, are the defence authorities frustrating the CBI's efforts to investigate?

Five months have passed since the incident and the detainees have been given bail, as the CBI failed to produce a charge-sheet within the mandatory 90 days. The captured men have, however, been rearrested on charges on unlawful entry.

Perhaps it is time for the Centre to intervene. The country, surely, deserves to know the truth. The whole truth.

Kind courtesy: Sunday magazine

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