GUWAHATI, India (AFP) - At least 56 people including children died in a series of militant attacks in Assam, Indian police said Wednesday, as the rebels dramatically intensified a long-running separatist campaign in the tea-growing state.
Witnesses said armed militants pulled villagers from their homes and shot them at point-blank range in a series of coordinated attacks carried out across the remote and volatile northeastern state on Tuesday.
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.
"This is one of the most barbaric attacks in recent times with the militants not even sparing infants," state Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi told AFP, saying the culprits would not be spared.
Police said 12 children were among those killed 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.
"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." A curfew has been imposed in sensitive areas and the army is on standby, Singh said.
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.
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 - an umbrella term for India's original inhabitants.
They oppose the Bodo claim for an independent homeland, arguing that in many areas of the state their ethnic group is in the majority.
Adivasis are disproportionately poor and many in Assam labour 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." 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.