GAUHATI, India (AP) – Hundreds of rebels in jungle fatigues lined up to surrender their weapons Tuesday as several local insurgent groups formally joined a cease-fire with the government in a step toward ending three decades of insurgency in northeastern India.
The 676 fighters who handed over weapons to authorities at a sports stadium in the Assam state capital of Gauhati are members of nine of the more than 20 ethnic rebel groups fighting the government in the remote northeastern state.
More than 10,000 people have been killed since 1979 when the insurgents began fighting for greater autonomy for their ethnic groups in Assam. However, over the past two years, the groups have begun to reach cease-fire accords and enter peace talks with the government.
Tuesday’s event in Gauhati brought the number of groups in talks to 15, leaving about a half dozen still fighting.
Senior army and police officers stood by as Home Minister P. Chidambaram assured the ex-fighters they would be embraced back into society.
“We shall make sure each one of you are able to enjoy equal rights now that you have shunned violence,” Chidambaram said.
He said the government was close to signing comprehensive peace deals with some of the groups, but did not elaborate. Previously, the government has said it is open to discussing demands for more autonomy in areas including civil administration, finances and cultural rights.
“All differences can be settled through talks, consultations, efforts and endeavors,” the home minister said.
Among the 15 ethnic rebel groups now negotiating peace in Assam is the largest and first to take up arms, the United Liberation Front of Asom. Its cease-fire deal, signed in September, calls for the government to shelter thousands of its disarmed rebels while peace talks are held.
The rebels have argued over the years that Assam’s indigenous people _ most of whom are ethnically closer to groups in Myanmar and China than to the rest of India _ are ignored by the federal government 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) away in New Delhi.
They also accuse the Indian government of exploiting the northeast’s rich natural resources _ complaints that are echoed by dozens of other ethnic rebel groups demanding autonomy in neighboring Indian states.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)