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India to send troops to end blockade of 'jeweled land'

By Harmeet Shah Singh, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Indian authorities to send in troops to end blockade
  • Naga tribe has blocked vital road for two months
  • Blockade has stopped flow of food and medicine to millions

New Delhi, India (CNN) -- Indian authorities plan to send paramilitaries this week to end a crippling 65-day road blockade by ethnic tribes in a remote, insurgency-wracked northeastern region of the country, a top official said Tuesday.

Home secretary G.K. Pillai told CNN that troops would deploy "in a day or two" on a major highway in the state of Manipur.

On Monday, a group of Naga tribe protesters announced easing the two-month long blockade temporarily.

The blockade has made it virtually impossible to get supplies of food, fuel and life-saving drugs to his state, home to 2.5 million people, a government spokesman said.

But authorities in New Delhi, who have been criticized by the Indian media for their handling of the crisis in Manipur, said plans were in place to move troops in. Top officials from Manipur and neighboring Nagaland state are due to meet and review the issue Wednesday in New Delhi, Pillai said.

As of now, paramilitaries are expected to escort the first convoy of trucks into the state by Friday, he said.

According to state officials, about 2,000 troops from paramilitary forces will guard one of the two highways.

"In the larger interest of our people, we cannot allow this to continue. It has to end," said N. Biren Singh, a Manipur government spokesman.

But Singh insisted the Naga move to lift the blockade was partial and inadequate.

Also, he said truck drivers were now refusing to use the route that protesters had announced to open to traffic. That highway, Singh explained, also had armed rebel guerrillas extorting illegal road tax from cargo transport. Besides, some transport operators were demanding compensation for their trucks burned down by the protesters, he said. For years, ethnic groups in Manipur have resisted the authority of New Delhi, claiming that they have suffered neglect from the federal government.

Dissatisfaction, in turn, has given rise to an insurgency that has inflicted violence on the state.

The Manipuri Nagas tribe wants greater autonomy for its districts and was unhappy with the state's decision to proceed with overdue local elections. Naga leaders boycotted the vote, claiming that their demands have not been met. Passions were also fueled last month when state authorities prevented Naga rebel leader Thuingaleng Muivah from entering his native village. In Imphal, the state capital, residents are facing crippling shortages.

Anju, a homemaker, said last week she had been using a kerosene stove for a month because cooking gas was not available. Luckily, she said, she had stockpiled kerosene but feared that the market had no more to offer.

She also felt lucky that her family owns a rice field and isn't dependent on local stores, where shelves were emptying fast. Though blessed with the beauty of blue mountains and oval valleys, Manipur -- meaning "jeweled land" -- is landlocked.

Authorities were flying in essential commodities, but Singh said air transportation of supplies was not enough to feed a population of 2.5 million. But some residents blasted the state government for rushing elections without addressing the core concerns of the local Nagas.

"They should have talked with [the Nagas] and listened to their demands, right or wrong, before announcing elections said Newmai Huniboi, a school principal in Manipur's Tamenglong