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Police shoot rioters as ethnic violence in India's Assam continues

Villagers armed with machetes and bamboo sticks face off with troops as police recover bodies from rice fields after five days of ethnic violence.

Indian security personnel patrol at Dangtol village, in Chirang District, some 200km from Guwahati, the largest city in the northeastern state of Assam.
Indian security personnel patrol at Dangtol village, in Chirang District, some 200km from Guwahati, the largest city in the northeastern state of Assam.

NEW DELHI // Villagers armed with machetes and bamboo sticks faced off with troops yesterday as the police recovered several bodies from rice fields after five days of ethnic violence in Assam.

The Indian government deployed additional army battalions to reinforce security forces struggling to contain riots that have killed more than 40 people and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.

The violence stems from long-standing territorial disputes between the Bodo tribespeople and Bengali Muslims settlers who have crossed the border into India from Bangladesh.

Tensions flared between the groups in early July when four Muslims were killed. By July 19, when another was found dead and the police failed to arrest anyone, the rioting began. On July 20, four former members of the Bodo Liberation Tigers, a militant separatist group, were found dead.

Since then, dozens of people have died and an estimated 150,000 people have fled their homes and taken shelter in government schools and relief camps.

Activists say that about 500 villages have been evacuated as people try to escape the violence.

Yesterday, more than 13,000 troops patrolled four districts in southern Assam and warned rioters they could be shot-on-sight and authorities also imposed a curfew.

Gun battles between the police and the rioters overnight Tuesday killed four people, according to the Reuters news agency.

"Nobody is following any curfew," said Sanjeev Kumar Krishna, a police official in Chirang district, which is one of the affected areas. "People are still walking out on the roads, huts are being set ablaze," he told Reuters.

Rioters were shown on Indian television stations, an array of weapons in hand, arguing with the army, as officers tried to take stock of homes rased to the ground.

"What is going on now is very sad," said Prodeep Kumar Daimary, the president of the Bodo Youths Welfare Association in Assam. "Threatened by rumours, more and more people are fleeing their homes. The violence is spreading."

He said little has been done to stem the violence, as conditions in the relief camps grew dire. Mr Daimary visited some of relief camps yesterday and said people were living in cramped quarters.

"The government of Assam has not provided adequate security to these people. They have not taken the matter seriously," said Mr Daimary. "There is sanitation problem. Adequate food is not available."

While the curfew was implemented to calm the security situation, it has led to a delay in the movement of food and medical supplies to relief camps.

About 100 lorries loaded with grain on their way to the main city, Guwahati, were left stranded on a highway yesterday. Recent floods that killed more than 100 people and left 400,000 people homeless in Assam have also affected road travel.

The Assamese government has blamed Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh for the violence. Largely unchecked migration from the country has stoked anti-Muslim sentiments in the state. Since the 1950s, millions from Bangladesh have crossed over to the Indian side, mostly to the northeastern states, including Assam.

Fighting between the Bodo and Bengali settlers is not a new phenomenon. In 1983, at least 2,000 people, mainly Bangladeshi immigrants, were killed in ethnic violence.

The Bodos are the second largest ethnic group in the state, but only make up about five per cent of the population. Muslims are the second largest religious group in the state, and the fastest growing segment of the state's population.

"The Bodos, they just feel deprived of their rights," said Mr Daimary, referring to the formation of Bodo separatist groups that have claimed the central government has done little to stem the flow of immigration.

Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister, who is a member of the Rajya Sabha, or upper house, represents Assam in the Indian parliament.

Mr Singh's office released a statement on Tuesday, saying he had taken "stock of the situation" after speaking on the phone to Tarun Gogoi, the chief minister of Assam.

"The Prime Minister has directed him to do everything possible to control the situation and for relief and rehabilitation of the affected," the statement said.

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae with additional reporting by Reuters

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