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Thousands flee homes in India’s strife-torn Assam

Thousands flee homes in India’s strife-torn Assam



Authorities rush more troops to quell unrest as death toll climbs to 44

Villagers affected by ethnic riots are pictured at a relief camp near Kokrajhar town in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, Wednesday. — Reuters

BIJNI, India — Trucks loaded with women, children, mattresses and bags of rice rolled into a refugee camp in India’s northeastern Assam state Thursday, as security forces tried to stamp out the worst communal violence in a decade with shoot-on-sight orders.

The death toll from clashes between Bodo tribespeople and Muslim settlers rose to 44 overnight, police said, after four more bodies were found. Police also opened fire on groups armed with sticks and spears for violating a curfew.

Fearing for their lives, tens of thousands of Muslims and Bodos have fled their homes in remote hamlets along the border with Bhutan, and sought shelter in camps in larger towns. Roving armed bands have set ablaze hundreds of tin-roofed homes, many made of hay and clay, in the nearly weeklong orgy of violence.

Indian authorities are rushing more troops to northeastern state to quell the unrest. There are already 6,000 army and paramilitary soldiers on the ground.

Assam’s Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi was meeting Bodo and Muslim leaders Thursday in an effort to defuse the tense situation and restore peace.

A 24-hour curfew has helped curtailed the violence. Police say there are still sporadic incidents of violence in worst-hit Chirang district as armed Bodo youth roam the deserted villages.

More than 200,000 people have fled their homes. They are crammed into some 125 relief camps set up in schools and government buildings.

The relief camp in a school in the town of Bijni is just one of nearly 60 hastily set up to cope with the flood of refugees, officials said.

Many of the camps lack food, water and security. Angry refugees surrounded a group of state lawmakers visiting the Bijni camp on Wednesday and demanded they take action.

“There is no security at all,” complained Habibur Rahman, 45, who fled to the camp earlier this week along with his parents, sister, wife and daughter.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who represents Assam in parliament’s upper house, may fly to the area on Saturday, his office said.

Ringed by China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan, India’s northeast is home to more than 200 ethnic and tribal groups and has been racked by separatist revolts since India’s independence from Britain in 1947.

In recent years, Hindu and Christian tribes have vented strong anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment against settlers from mostly Muslim Bangladesh, which neighbors Assam.

The latest violence erupted days after floods killed more than 100 people and left at least 400,000 homeless in Assam.

In 1983, at least 2,000 people, mainly Bangladeshi immigrants, were killed in clashes in central Assam.

The violence of the past week has been concentrated in the Kokrajhar and Chirang districts, situated in a narrow strip of land sandwiched between Bhutan and Bangladesh. Both districts were reported to be quiet overnight after army reinforcements were dispatched to help police and paramilitary forces.

But in recent days the pattern has been for attacks to be carried out under the cover of darkness.

Violence, however, flared in another area, Baska, when police opened fire on a group of Bodos violating the curfew. At least three Bodos were wounded, said L.R. Bishnoi, the top policeman in the state.

In Dhubri district near Kokrajhar a police patrol fired on a group of Muslims armed with makeshift weapons, killing at least one, Bishnoi said. — Agencies