Authorities in India's remote northeast called in the army to restore order and imposed an indefinite curfew after recovering seven more bodies Saturday that brought to 29 the number of Muslim villagers killed by separatists rebels in the worst outbreak of violence in the region in two years.
Army troops marched through the troubled areas of Assam state in a show of force after police said gunmen from the Bodo tribe, which have long accused Muslims of sneaking into India illegally from neighbouring Bangladesh, went on a shooting rampage, setting ablaze Muslim homes and firing indiscriminately on civilians.
At least eight women and as many children were among the dead, said regional police inspector general L.R. Bishnoi.
Heavy rains Saturday hampered government forces from tracking down the rebels, who belong to a faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, which has been fighting for a separate homeland for the ethnic Bodo people for decades. The Bodos are an indigenous tribe in Assam, making up 10 per cent of the state's 33 million people.
The violence came at a time of heightened security during India's general election, with the voting taking place over six weeks. Tensions have been high since a Bodo lawmaker in India's Parliament criticized Muslims for not voting for the Bodo candidate, said Lafikul Islam Ahmed, leader of a Muslim youth organization called the All Bodoland Muslim Students' Union.
Local television reports showed hundreds of Muslim villagers fleeing their homes with belongings on pushcarts or in their hands. Most were headed to nearby Dubri district, which is near the border with Bangladesh. Nearly 400 people have fled so far, Bishnoi said.
The army was asked to hold flag marches in the troubled districts after the curfew was imposed on Friday, he said.
In 2012, weekslong violence between Bodo people and Muslims killed as many as 100 people in the same area.
Police said that in the third and most recent attack on Friday evening, militants entered a village in the western Baksa district and set at least 40 Muslim homes ablaze before opening fire. Assam's additional director general of police R.M. Singh said 11 bodies, all of them shot to death, were recovered from the attack.
Another seven bodies were recovered Saturday, Bishnoi said.
The first attack took place in the same district late Thursday night when at least eight rebels opened fire on a group of villagers sitting in a courtyard. Four people were killed and two others were wounded, police said. The second attack happened around midnight in Kokrajhar district when more than 20 armed men, their faces covered with black hoods, broke open the doors of two homes and sprayed them with bullets, killing seven people, witnesses said.
Crying inconsolably, 28-year-old Mohammed Sheikh Ali said his mother, wife and daughter were killed in the attack.
"I will curse myself forever because I failed to save them," Ali said in a telephone interview from a hospital where he was waiting for doctors to complete the autopsies on his family. "I am left all alone in this world. ... I want justice."
Dozens of rebel groups have been fighting the government and sometimes each other for years in seven states in northeast India. They demand greater regional autonomy or independent homelands for the indigenous groups they represent.