NEW DELHI: The Centre ordered an all-out offensive against the insurgents in the Northeast on Thursday, hours after the Manipur ambush. The Army has been asked to launch “search and destroy” operations against the militants.

The decision was taken at a high-level meeting held last evening which was attended by Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, Army Chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag and other top officials.

At least 20 soldiers were killed and 11 others injured in an ambush in Manipur’s Chandel district. The 5 Dogra Convoy, headed from Motul to Imphal, was ambushed en route by insurgents early June 4 morning. A day earlier Chandel was shut down in protest against the alleged killing of a woman by the Assam Rifles.

Initial reports of those responsible for the attack remain hazy, but the armed forces suspect this to be the work of Naga group Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) or the United National Liberation Front of Manipur, that is a banned group but still active in the state.

The insurgent groups have been active in Manipur with sporadic incidents keeping the Army on its toes. This has been a major attack after a long gap, although a while ago eight soldiers were killed, in batches of four each, by insurgents while they were going to fetch water. The number is high this time, and the fact that a convoy was ambushed raises questions about the fortification of the insurgent groups with cadres and weaponry.

The UNLF is the oldest Meitei insurgent group in Manipur and was formed in 1964 by Areamba Samrendra Singh for independence. Singh was killed in Imphal in 2001 by unknown assailants. In the 1990’s UNLF launched an armed struggle for the “liberation” of Manipur from India and set up an armed wing, the Manipur People’s Army. The current chairman of the group is Rajkumar Meghen alia Sana Yaima. It has an active women’s wing as well and operates in Assam as well.

The South Asia Terrorism Portal points out that the UNLF had a close relationship with erstwhile East Pakistan and its cadres were trained there in in 1969. It writes, “They also supported the Pakistani army during the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war. Later, the group also developed a relationship with China even while continuing its relations with Pakistan. On June 14, 1975, UNLF leader N. Bisheswar Singh and 16 other Meitei rebels proceeded to Lhasa to seek Chinese assistance. The group has links with Naga and Mizo terrorist outfits as well. On May 22, 1990, the UNLF, along with other insurgent groups operating in the Northeast – the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Khaplang (NSCN-K), the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), and the Kuki National Army (KNA) – floated a pan-Mongoloid coalition called the Indo-Burma Revolutionary Front (IBRF) to wage a "united struggle for the independence of Indo-Burma". The UNLF has training camps in Myanmar and Bangladesh. It also maintains close association with the NSCN-K.”

Manipur civil society led by the indomitable Irom Sharmila has been demanding the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. There were protests in the state against AFSPA after Tripura revoked the Act recently. There have been allegations of torture and disappearances at the hands of both insurgents and the armed forces.