Gauhati, India - Separatist rebels wearing black masks opened fire on Muslim villagers and set their homes ablaze in remote northeastern India, killing at least 22 people over two days, police said Friday. It was the worst outbreak of violence in the region in two years.
The gunmen are members of the Bodo tribe and belong to a faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, said regional police inspector general L.R. Bishnoi. Bodo tribesmen have long accused Muslims of sneaking into India illegally from Bangladesh and encroaching on their ancestral land in Assam state.
The dead included at least six women and three children, police said.
The violence comes at a time of heightened security during India's general election, with the voting taking place over six weeks.
Tensions have been high since a Bodo lawmaker in India's Parliament criticized Muslims for not voting for the Bodo candidate, said Lafikul Islam Ahmed, leader of a Muslim youth organization called the All Bodoland Muslim Students' Union.
In 2012, weekslong violence between Bodo people and Muslims killed as many as 100 people in the same area.
Police said that in the third and most recent attack, which took place Friday evening, a group of militants entered a village in the western Baksa district and set at least 20 Muslim homes ablaze before opening fire. Assam's additional director general of police R.M. Singh said at least 11 bodies, all of them shot to death, have been recovered from the attack, taking the total death toll in two days of violence to 22. Few other details were immediately available as reports trickled in from the remote villages, Singh said.
The first attack took place in the same district late Thursday night when at least eight rebels opened fire on a group of villagers sitting in a courtyard. Four people were killed and two others were wounded, police said.
The second attack happened around midnight in Kokrajhar district when more than 20 armed men, their faces covered with black hoods, broke open the doors of two homes and sprayed them with bullets, killing seven people, witnesses said.
Crying inconsolably, 28-year-old Mohammed Sheikh Ali said his mother, wife and daughter were killed in the attack.
“I will curse myself forever because I failed to save them,” Ali said in a telephone interview from a hospital where he was waiting for doctors to complete the autopsies on his family. “I am left all alone in this world. ... I want justice.”
Local television reports showed hundreds of Muslim villagers fleeing their villages, carrying their belongings on push carts or in their hands. Most were headed to nearby Dubri dustrict which is near the border with Bangladesh.
Television footage showed hundreds of people, most of them poor farmers or laborers, squatting in a large field in Dubri.
The National Democratic Front of Bodoland has been fighting for a separate homeland for the region's ethnic Bodo people for decades. The Bodos are an indigenous tribe in Assam, making up 10 percent of the state's 33 million people.
Dozens of rebel groups have been fighting the government and sometimes each other for years in seven states in northeast India. They demand greater regional autonomy or independent homelands for the indigenous groups they represent.
The rebels accuse the federal government of exploiting the region's rich mineral resources but neglecting the local people.
At least 10 000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in Assam state alone in the last three decades.