May 4 (Bloomberg) -- Dozens of Muslim families fled their homes in India’s northeastern Assam state where soldiers were deployed to keep order after masked tribal militants gunned down at least 32 villagers, mostly women and children.
About 300 refugees were living at a relief camp set up about five kilometers (3 miles) from the worst-hit villages in Baksa district, Khagen Sarma, Assam’s director-general of police, said by telephone from Guwahati today. Some of the victims bodies were pulled out of a river near the villages, S.N. Singh, Assam’s inspector general of police for law and order, said in a phone interview while updating the death toll.
Twenty-two people have been arrested in connection with the attacks since May 1 in Baksa and Kokrajhar districts, where gunmen clad in fatigues shot people using assault rifles and torched homes. Rebels from the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, which says it’s fighting for an independent homeland, were responsible, according to police and local officials.
“The objective of this group seems to be aimed at starting a full fledged communal conflagration,” India’s Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said in an e-mailed statement today. “The forces on the ground will definitely control the situation,” he said, while appealing to leaders of both the Bodo and minority community to help maintain calm and peace.
Assam has a history of violent unrest between indigenous Bodo tribespeople and Muslims, who resettled there from what is now Bangladesh. In 2012, ethnic clashes killed 80 people and displaced more than 400,000, prompting the government to block websites, censor social media, and ban bulk mobile-phone texting to check the spread of violence.
The state government was worried the violence could spread and authorities were trying their best to prevent it, Ranjit Gogoi, Assam’s director of public relations, said yesterday. Soldiers and paramilitary forces have been deployed in affected areas and a curfew has been imposed.
“There hasn’t been any fresh violence,” Assam police’s Singh said today. “But we’re keeping the curfew in place.”
The latest attacks involved about 40 Bodo militants firing AK-47 rifles, and at least 35 houses belonging to Muslims were set ablaze near Manas National Park, according to Assam police.
The assailants wore fatigues and black masks, police said. The youngest victim was just “a few months old,” Sarma said. Almost all of the missing have now been accounted for, he said.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a statement condemned the attacks, saying the government will seek to maintain order. The administration also said relief camps are being set up.
The assaults may be a retaliation for a crackdown on the rebels since January that killed 18 militants and led 45 more to surrender, Assam police’s Singh said.
The Times of India reported yesterday that the incidents may have been sparked by speculation the victims’ communities voted for a non-Bodo candidate in national elections. The newspaper cited a leader of the Bodoland People’s Front it didn’t identify.
India’s general elections began April 7 and results are due May 16.
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