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Death toll hits 32 as nine more Muslims killed in Assam

DRN Desk:      Security forces in northeast India found the bodies of nine Muslims Saturday, raising the death toll to 32 in a spate of attacks by suspected tribal militants as a weeks-long general election re-opens ethnic divisions.

The election has rekindled the question of religious animosity across India with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) looking set to win, but the violence in the tea-growing state of Assam stems from friction over migration.

Police said six of the nine Muslims found shot dead were women and children. Security forces rescued three children found nearby hiding in forests close to the border with Bhutan.

“Shoot-on-sight orders are issued to troops deployed in troubled areas,” L R Bishnoi, inspector general of Assam’s police, told Reuters.

Assam has a history of sectarian violence and armed groups fighting for greater autonomy or secession from India.

Police suspect militants from the Bodo tribe were behind the latest attacks in a region where tension between ethnic Bodo people and Muslim settlers has simmered for years.

The nine bodies, including those of women and children, were recovered from Narayanguri village in Baksa district, 200 kilometres (125 miles) 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.

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.

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