Guwahati, Jan 1 (IANS): Arabinda Rajkhowa, chairman of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and one of India's most wanted fugitives, was released early Saturday from jail here. He said the outfit was ready for unconditional peace talks but a formal decision would be taken once all jailed leaders are freed.
Rajkhowa was released on bail from the Guwahati Central Jail, a year after he was captured by Bangladesh and then handed over to Indian authorities in Assam.
He was granted bail by a special TADA court Thursday after the government prosecutor gave no objection to Rajkhowa's bail petition.
"We are for unconditional peace talks with the government, but a formal decision to this effect could be taken at our executive meeting once all jailed leaders are released," the ULFA chairman told journalists soon after he stepped out of jail.
Rajkhowa, 54, was captured from Dhaka by sleuths of the Rapid Action Battalion and then handed over to Indian authorities December last year. He was at the Guwahati Central Jail for the past one year.
A large crowd comprising family and friends greeted Rajkhowa outside the jail.
"I would take this opportunity to thank the Citizens Forum (a civil society group that advocated the release of the jailed ULFA leadership to pave the way for peace talks) for mounting pressure for our release and also the government for cooperating and respecting the sentiment of the people by releasing us," Rajkhowa said.
"But I would like to appeal to the government to immediately release two of our jailed colleagues, (self styled foreign secretary) Sasha Chouhdury and (finance secretary)Chitraban Hazarika, immediately, besides taking urgent steps to enable Anup Chetia (ULFA general secretary currently jailed in Bangladesh since 1997) to come to India and take part in the peace process."
"But I would like to make it very clear that the peace process in no way would bring division or split the ULFA," the ULFA chairman said.
Although wife Kaveri and their two children were captured along with him, police had let off his family with no charges slapped against them. Rajkhowa's family has since been settled in his ancestral home in Lakwa in eastern Assam's Sivasagar district.
Rajkhowa, who studied till class 12, was tried on several criminal charges ranging from murder to kidnapping and extortion, with the maximum penalty being the death sentence, according to Assam Police.
But lack of hard evidence and as part of a government strategy to get the jailed ULFA leaders released, Rajkhowa got a favourable verdict from the court.
Rajkhowa has become the sixth top jailed leaders to have been released on bail since May with the government getting a clear signal from the imprisoned separatists that they would hold peace talks with New Delhi once released.
Barring ULFA's elusive commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah, the entire top brass of the outfit were in jail. The imprisoned leaders included Rajkhowa, vice chairman Pradip Gogoi, publicity chief Mithinga Daimary, deputy commander-in-chief Raju Baruah, Sasha Choudhury, Chitrabon Hazarika, cultural secretary Pranati Deka, and political ideologue Bhimkanta Buragohain.
But with demands for releasing the jailed ULFA leaders gathering momentum to pave the way for holding peace talks, the government embarked on a strategy not to oppose the bail applications of the separatists in court.
One by one six top jailed ULFA leaders were released on bail. The first to be released on bail were Pradeep Gogoi and Mithinga Daimary, followed by Raju Baruah and Pranati Deka, and earlier this month the veteran Bhimkanta Buragohain.