Security forces in northeast India found the bodies of nine Muslims yesterday, raising the death toll to 32 in a spate of attacks by suspected tribal militants as a weeks-long general election re-opens ethnic divisions.
The election has rekindled the question of religious animosity across India with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party looking set to win, but the violence in the tea-growing state of Assam stems from friction over migration.
Police said six of the nine Muslims found shot dead were women and children. Security forces rescued three children found nearby hiding in forests close to the border with Bhutan.
The latest fighting in the area, a site of frequent ethnic clashes, began on Thursday with the killing of 11 Bengali-speaking Muslim villagers, followed by more bloodshed on Friday when 12 others were slain.
The victims of the attacks were Muslim migrants who have been locked for years in land disputes with indigenous Bodo tribes in the tea-growing state that borders Bhutan and Bangladesh.
Media reports said Muslim villagers were targeted as a punishment for not voting for candidates backed by the rebels.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh yesterday directed Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi and Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde to "restore normalcy" in the area, while condemning the attacks.
Investigators said they arrested around 20 suspects yesterday in the violence-hit districts of Baksa and its neighbour, Kokrajhar.
The attacks have prompted security forces to launch a massive hunt for the guerillas and have spurred some 5,000 people to flee from their homes, a local police officer said.
The officer added that an indefinite curfew has also been imposed in the violence-torn districts, with police given shoot-on-sight orders and army soldiers on standby.
Assam has a history of sectarian violence and armed groups fighting for greater autonomy or secession from India.
Police suspect militants from the Bodo tribe were behind the latest attacks in a region where tension between ethnic Bodo people and Muslim settlers has simmered for years.
In 2012, clashes erupted in which dozens of people were killed and 400,000 fled their homes.
Bodo representatives say many of the Muslims in Assam are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh who encroach on ancestral Bodo lands.
The five-week general election, has exacerbated friction over migration in Assam. Voting in Assam has ended, with April 24 the last day of polling.
Candidates including prime-ministerial front-runner Narendra Modi of the BJP have called for tighter controls.
Modi said last week that illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in the nearby state of West Bengal should have their "bags packed" in case he came to power, accusing the state government of being too soft.