The commander of a powerful rebel movement in India's remote northeast was arrested along with a top deputy, officials said Friday, in a major blow to a separatist army already crippled by a string of arrests.
Indian officials said publicly that Arabinda Rajkhowa surrendered Friday. But security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the chairman of the United Liberation Front of Asom, or ULFA, was actually arrested days earlier in Bangladesh, where he had long been thought to be hiding. The exact date was unclear.
Because the two neighbors have no extradition treaty, he was informally handed over to Indian authorities, said the security officials, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. Bangladeshi authorities denied arresting Rajkhowa.
The details of the capture _ which also included the apprehension of the rebels' deputy military chief, a bodyguard, and seven relatives of the militants _ were hazy. It was not clear if the arrests had been negotiated or if those detained were dropped off on the Indo-Bangladeshi border by authorities so they could be officially taken into custody inside India on Friday.
But the official account _ with the militants detained as they wandered along a guarded frontier _ appeared an unlikely scenario for the capture of a hardened rebel who had spent years evading India's clutches.
The militants were "roaming about on the Indian side when our troopers came in contact with them, leading to their surrender," said Ravi Gandhi, a spokesman for the Border Security Force.
He said the group surrendered at the Indian border post of Dawki, in northeastern Meghalaya state, just steps away from Bangladesh.
If Rajkhowa was arrested by authorities in Bangladesh, where the rebels have long been thought to be based, it would be a major blow to the movement.
"The loss of Bangladesh as a safe haven would have a devastating effect on the insurgency," said Ajai Sahni, head of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management.
ULFA, which is believed to have about 400 fighters, has suffered a string of setbacks over the past year, with several top commanders arrested. After Friday's arrests, the movement's only top leader at large is military commander Paresh Baruah.
Many Indian security officials believe Baruah and a few dozen fighters are now in hiding in China, just across the border from Myanmar.
Officials, though, said Baruah may end his fugitive days soon.
"We have information that Paresh Baruah is currently based on the China-Myanmar border and hope he will accept our standing offer of peace talks," Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi said.
The rebels have fought for an independent homeland for ethnic Assamese people in India's northeast for the past two decades. At least 10,000 people, most civilians, have died in Assam state because of fighting between government forces and the insurgents, as well as with another separatist group, the National Democratic Front of Boroland.