Separatist militants kill dozens in India's northeastern Assam state

Activists of the Assam Tea Tribes Student Association (ATTSA) shout slogans as they block the road with burning tyres during a protest against attacks on villagers by militants in four different locations, at Biswanath Chariali in the Sonitpur distri
Activists of the Assam Tea Tribes Student Association (ATTSA) shout slogans as they block the road with burning tyres during a protest against attacks on villagers by militants in four different locations, at Biswanath Chariali in the Sonitpur district of northeastern Assam state on Dec 24, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

GUWAHATI, India (AFP) - Violence in the restive Indian state of Assam has killed 68 people including 12 children, authorities said Wednesday, as separatist rebels dramatically intensified a long-running campaign in the tea-growing area.

Heavily armed militants launched a series of coordinated attacks in rural Assam on Tuesday, pulling villagers from their homes and shooting them at point-blank range, witnesses said.

At least 65 people died as a result of the attacks, while another three were killed when police fired on protesters demanding justice the following day, Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi told journalists.

"This is one of the most barbaric attacks in recent times with the militants not even sparing infants," Gogoi told AFP, saying the culprits would not be spared.

He said all the victims were from the Adivasi - an umbrella term for India's indigenous tribes.

Assam, which borders Bhutan and Bangladesh, has a long history of often violent land disputes between the indigenous Bodo people, Muslim settlers from Bangladesh and rival tribes in the area.

Gogoi said around 2,000 Adivasis armed with bows and arrows, machetes and other crude implements, entered a local police station carrying the coffins of victims on Wednesday morning.

"Police opened fire when the protestors entered the police station and tried to attack," he said.

Police said 12 children died in the attacks, which they blamed on the outlawed National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).

The group has for decades waged a violent campaign for a separate homeland for the people of the Bodo tribes, which are indigenous to India's northeast.

A curfew has been imposed in sensitive areas and the army is on standby, police Inspector General S.N. Singh told AFP.

One villager said the rebels were armed with sophisticated assault rifles and had come on foot.

"I saw my wife and two sons being shot dead before my eyes," said 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.

- 'Act of cowardice' -

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the attacks as an "act of cowardice" and said the federal home minister would travel to Assam to assess the situation.

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.

Bodo guerrillas have in recent years launched ferocious attacks on both Muslim settlers and Adivasis who oppose their claim for an independent homeland.

India's Adivasis are disproportionately poor and many live in Assam, where they take poorly-paid work on tea plantations.

It was not clear why the villagers were targeted, but analyst K.G. Suresh said the attacks were likely carried out in revenge for a recent government crackdown on militants in the state.

"There was resentment among the NDFB over an anti-militancy operation that was carried out recently. The tribals were easy targets," said Suresh, a senior fellow with the Vivekananda International Foundation think tank in Delhi.

"In the northeast there is not just one entity, there are hundreds of tribes who are mutually antagonistic." The Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights said the culprits must be held accountable for their crimes and criticised the state's failure to bring those behind previous such attacks to justice.

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.

Adivasi groups on Wednesday staged retaliatory attacks on Bodo settlements in the area.

Television footage showed houses in flames with angry villagers demanding immediate action against the rebels.

Junior home minister Kiren Rijiju, who is from India's northeast, criticised those responsible for the attacks.

"This is not fighting for a cause. This is a disservice to the community they claim to represent," he told reporters in New Delhi.