Guwahati: A crucial round of peace talks between the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the central government began in New Delhi on Tuesday with both sides expected to discuss the charter of demands presented by the rebels.

“The talks will focus on our charter of demands already submitted to the home ministry and we expect a positive response from the government,” ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa said.

The talks began between the six-member ULFA delegation headed by Rajkhowa and senior home ministry officials.  The ULFA charter of demands includes constitutional amendments to give Assam greater control over their natural resources, revenue generation, participation in the planning process, ensuring a secure demographic situation, besides accelerated and balanced development. 

However, the ULFA's primary objective of a 'sovereign independent Assam' does not figure in the charter of demands. 

The charter of demands apart, key issues like ceasefire ground rules, surrender of weapons and cadres being confined to designated camps are also expected to figure in the talks.  ULFA and the central government entered into a ceasefire earlier this year after both the central and New Delhi facilitated the release on bail of the top rebel leadership. 

ULFA, one of the biggest rebel outfits in the tea and oil-rich region of Assam, has fought for an independent homeland for the ethnic Assamese since 1979.  At least 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in Assam because of fighting between government forces and various rebel groups during the past three decades. 

The much-hyped talks, however, hit a major roadblock with the elusive ULFA commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah rejecting the initiative.  Baruah, said to be hiding in the Myanmar-China border area, in an e-mail statement, said: 'We cannot support the peace talks as the ULFA leadership led by Rajkhowa is under the influence of our enemy (government).' 

But the ULFA chairman maintains Paresh Baruah is not opposed to the peace talks.  'We have not got any direct communication from Paresh Baruah rejecting the peace process and so we still believe he is not averse to the talks and would support us,' Rajkhowa said. 

Apart from Rajhkowa, the other ULFA leaders taking part in the talks include vice chairman Pradeep Gogoi, deputy commander-in-chief Raju Baruah, self-styled foreign secretary Sasha Choudhury, finance secretary Chitraban Hazarika and publicity chief Mithinga Daimary.  Political ideologue Bhimkanta Buragohain, 80, and cultural secretary Pranati Deka are not taking part in the talks on health grounds.

(Agencies)