GAUHATI, India — Police said Sunday they killed three suspected rebels and arrested eight forest guards for alleged involvement in the killings of 31 Muslims in the worst ethnic violence in India’s remote northeast in two years.
In dense forest near Tejpur, four suspected insurgents hurled a grenade and fired at policemen who ambushed them, said police officer Sanjukta Prashar. Police killed two in an exchange of gunfire and two suspects escaped, she said. The town is nearly 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the region where Muslims were attacked on Thursday and Friday.
In Udalguri district, police killed a third suspect in an exchange of gunfire and recovered one revolver and one hand grenade from him, said regional police inspector general L.R. Bishnoi. He said police suspect two who fled were on their way to attack a village with a mostly Muslim population.
Police also recovered two bodies floating in a river in Barapeta area, Bishnoi said, raising the death toll in last week’s violence to 31.
Police said they have arrested eight forest guards following complaints by the victims’ relatives that they were involved in the brutal killings. The 22 people arrested earlier face charges they either burned homes or provided shelter to insurgents.
On Sunday, army soldiers patrolled the curfew-bound districts of Baska and Kokrajhar for a second day to defuse tension.
Relatives, who earlier refused to bury 18 victims in Baska unless Assam state’s top elected official visited them, relented and performed the last rites after state Planning Minister Prithvi Majhi met them and assured security to thousands of people hit by the ethnic violence. The wrapped bodies had remained on the road for two days.
Authorities have said the attackers belonged 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 rebel group denies it.
The Bodos are an indigenous tribe in Assam state, making up 10 percent of the state’s 33 million people.
Rights group Amnesty International India said in a statement that authorities in Assam state must take action to protect the rights of all communities and bring those responsible for the attacks to justice.
The violence comes during India’s multiphase general election, with voting concluding this month. 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.
The country’s multiphase general election concludes May 12, with results for Parliament’s lower house announced on May 16.
Over the weekend, 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.
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.
Another seven bodies were recovered Saturday, Bishnoi said.
Police also rescued three children hiding in a forest in Baksa district, he said.
The first attack took place in the same district late Thursday night when at least eight rebels opened fire on villagers sitting in a courtyard. Four people were killed and two 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 bullets inside, killing seven people, witnesses said.
Crying inconsolably, 28-year-old Mohammed Sheikh Ali said his mother, wife and daughter were killed.
“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.”
In 2012, weekslong violence between Bodo people and Muslims killed as many as 100 people in the same area.
Dozens of rebel groups are active in seven states in northeast India. They demand greater regional autonomy or independent homelands for the indigenous groups they represent.
At least 10,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in Assam state in the last three decades.