GUWAHATI, India - Police found nine more bodies Saturday after a deadly rampage by tribal separatists in India’s remote northeastern Assam state, taking the death toll to 32 following two days of violence.
The latest fighting in the area, a site of frequent ethnic clashes, began on Thursday with the killing of 11 Bengali-speaking Muslim villagers, followed by more bloodshed Friday when 12 others were slain.
Police said it was not immediately known when the nine villagers whose bodies were recovered Saturday had been killed. ‘The death toll has gone up to 32,’ police inspector general SN Singh told AFP. ‘Security has been further tightened with police and paramilitary troopers deployed in strength.’
The nine bodies, including those of women and children, were recovered from Narayanguri village in Baksa district, 200 kilometres west of Assam’s main city of Guwahati. This week’s attacks come as India votes in a multi-phased general election that began on April 7. Polling winds up on May 12, with results to be announced four days later.
Voting in Assam has ended, with April 24 the last day of polling. Police blamed the attacks on the outlawed National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), which has been demanding a separate homeland for decades.
Investigators said they arrested around 20 suspects on Saturday in the violence-hit districts of Baksa and its neighbour, Kokrajhar. ‘So far we have arrested about 20 people,’ said a senior police official, who did not want to be named. Witnesses said some of the victims were killed as attackers opened fire on them while they slept in their homes.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh directed Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and Indian Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde on Saturday to ‘restore normalcy’ in the area, while condemning the attacks.
‘(My) heart reaches out and grieves for all those who lost their near and dear ones,’ Singh said in a statement. The attacks have prompted security forces to launch a massive hunt for the guerillas and have spurred some 5,000 people to flee from their homes, police officer Singh said.
The officer added that an indefinite curfew has also been imposed in the violence-torn districts, with police given shoot-on-sight orders and army soldiers on standby. The victims of the attacks were Muslim migrants who have been locked for years in land disputes with indigenous Bodo tribes in the tea-growing state that borders Bhutan and Bangladesh. Media reports said Muslim villagers were targeted as a punishment for not voting for candidates backed by the rebels. Chief Minister Gogoi said the National Investigation Agency (NIA) would probe the violence and involvement of any political parties.
‘An NIA probe has been sought and anyone found guilty, including politicians, will not be spared,’ Gogoi told reporters after a state cabinet meeting Saturday. While the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has criticised the Congress-led state government for inaction and failure to protect its people, some student groups have demanded Gogoi’s resignation.