GUWAHATI, Feb 9 (IANS) - The first round of formal peace talks between the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the central government begins in New Delhi Thursday, the outfit suffering a vertical split with the hardline faction headed by elusive commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah rejecting the proposed dialogue.
An eight-member ULFA team led by outfit's chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa left for New Delhi Wednesday for the talks with the government team to be headed by union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai.
"We are quite hopeful the peace talks due to begin Thursday would help in resolving the three decades long Assam-India conflict," the ULFA chairman told journalists here before leaving for the capital by a commercial flight.
The ULFA team met Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi at his official residence Wednesday.
"We are very optimistic that permanent peace would dawn in Assam," the Chief Minister said.
Besides Rajkhowa, vice-chairman Pradep Gogoi, deputy commander-in-chief Raju Baruah, self-styled foreign secretary Sasha Choudhury, finance secretary Chitraban Hazarika, cultural secretary Pranati Deka and octogenarian political ideologue Bhimkanta Buragohain are the other ULFA leaders taking part in the talks.
All the top eight ULFA leaders are out on bail with the government facilitating their release from prison to pave the way for formal peace talks.
But the much-hyped talks have hit a major roadblock with the ULFA commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah Monday rejecting the initiative.
"The decision taken by the general council to hold peace talks with the government cannot be considered legal as the general council itself was unconstitutional," an e-mailed statement by ULFA's publicity secretary Arunodoi Dohotia said Monday.
The ULFA leadership Saturday told journalists here that the outfit's general council held last week decided to open unconditional peace talks with the central government and that all the resolutions adopted at that meeting were conveyed to Paresh Baruah.
"We held an emergency meeting at our general headquarters (somewhere in Myanmar) that began Sunday and concluded early Monday and we decided the general council meeting chaired by our chairman was unconstitutional as the meeting was held under the influence of our enemy (government)," the statement from the ULFA faction headed by Paresh Baruah said.
"We have also decided that the proposed peace talks are unconstitutional and hence we decided not to support such a dialogue process," the statement added.
The statement also said Paresh Baruah chaired the "emergency meeting".
The ULFA commander-in-chief is believed to be somewhere along the China-Myanmar border.
"We don't think the absence of one single leader would affect the peace process. We want Paresh Baruah for the talks, but at the same time cannot wait indefinitely for him," the Chief Minister said.
The ULFA was formed in 1979 with the sole objective of carving out an independent homeland in Assam, and the more than three decades old insurgency has claimed over 10,000 lives.
The Paresh Baruah faction statement has clearly exposed chinks in the peace process and the outfit is now split between the pro-talk faction led by Arabinda Rajkhowa and anti-talks groups led by Paresh Baruah.