GUWAHATI: The Indian government appealed for calm yesterday after at least 35 Muslims died in the northeastern state of Assam in attacks targeting women and children and blamed on tribal separatists.
As more than 5,000 soldiers and police patrolled the restive tea-growing region, Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said the killings appeared aimed at provoking a “full fledged” communal conflict.
Police blame indigenous Bodo tribesmen for the violence on Thursday and Friday in the region, where Muslims have long been accused of grabbing land after migrating from across the Bangladesh border.
“The objective of this (separatist) group seems to be aimed at starting a full fledged communal conflagration,” Shinde said in a statement, adding the violence was targeted at women and children.
“The public leaders of both Bodo and (the) minority community must see to it that things do not deteriorate,” the minister said, urging the region to maintain “peace and calm”.
Thousands of families have fled their homes since masked gunmen went on the rampage in Baksa and neighbouring Kokrajhar district, shooting Muslims dead, including children as young as 18 months, as they slept.
Shinde put the death toll at 32. But a senior police official said two more bodies were discovered yesterday, while a teenager died of her injuries overnight on Saturday, taking the number killed to 35.
“Two dead bodies were recovered from a riverbank a few kilometres away from Narayanguri while another teenage girl injured in the attack succumbed to her injuries in a hospital,” the officer said on condition of anonymity.
Some 4,000 Central Armed Police Force officers and 1,500 soldiers have already been deployed, with another 1,000 police on their way, Shinde’s statement said.
Despite the tight security, Muslim community leader Ibrahim Ali said families had fled their homes, some of which have been razed, adding that “a sense of fear and panic looms large”.
“More than 5,000 people have fled their homes in the two districts and are taking shelter in safe areas,” said Abdur Rahim, leader of the All Minority Students Union.
Local media reported that Bodos targeted the community as punishment for failing to support their candidate in the multi-phase election. Voting in Assam ended on April 24.
Survivors buried 18 bodies yesterday.
Several villagers said the attackers were forest guards who lived in a camp in the village and were well known to them.
“They wore black cloths across their faces, but I knew who they were, I used to sit and chat with them every day,” said Safiqul Islam, whose sister and her son were killed in the violence.
Assam’s Additional Director General of Police, A P Rout, said six forest guards were being interrogated about the villagers’ claims.
“These are very serious accusations. They are government employees, they have authorised weapons. It could be wild allegations, but we will find out,” Rout said.
More than 20 people have been arrested for abetting the attackers, and more arrests are expected, Rout said.