GUWAHATI, India (AFP) - The death toll from a series of attacks by armed militants in remote north-east India has risen to 56, police said Wednesday.
Witnesses said militants pulled villagers from their homes and shot them at point-blank range in a series of coordinated attacks in the restive state of Assam late on Tuesday.
The state's chief minister said children were among the dead, and that those responsible would not be spared. "This is one of the most barbaric attacks in recent times with the militants not even sparing infants," Mr Tarun Gogoi told AFP.
Police blamed the attacks on the outlawed National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), which has been demanding a separate homeland for decades. "As of now 56 people are dead and 80 others are injured. At least 20 of them are in critical condition in hospitals," police inspector-general S.N. Singh told AFP. "Our teams are still trying to reach the remote areas to see if there are more bodies lying in houses or forests."
Assam, which borders Bhutan and Bangladesh, has a long history of often violent land disputes between the indigenous Bodo tribes, Muslim settlers and the Adivasi community.
Bodo guerrillas have in recent years launched ferocious attacks on both Muslim settlers and the tribal Adivasi community.
"I saw my wife and two sons being shot dead before my eyes," said Mr Anil Murmu, a 40-year-old survivor from the worst-hit village of Phulbari, where 30 people were killed.
"I somehow managed to escape by hiding under the bed," he told AFP by phone.
The police said recent talks initiated by the national government with one faction of the NDFB may have provoked the attacks. Some hardliners within the group opposed negotiations.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the attacks as an "act of cowardice" and said India's home minister would travel to Assam state to assess the situation.
Earlier this year, about 10,000 people fled their homes when violent clashes over a border dispute left more than 45 people dead.
In 2012, ethnic clashes in the same area in Assam claimed about 100 lives and displaced more than 400,000 people.