NEW DELHI (Wall Street Journal ) — Indian police said Sunday they shot and killed three suspected separatist guerrillas allegedly involved in attacks on migrant Muslim communities that left at least 31 dead last week.
Thousands of Muslim families fled their homes in the northeastern state of Assam after fighters believed to belong to a faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, opened fire in two villages.
The Bodoland group—which wants an independent homeland for the Bodo, a Tibeto-Burman-language speaking ethnic group—denied responsibility for the attacks.
Lajja Ram Bishnoi, a police official in Assam, said one of the suspected militants was “killed in a police encounter,” while the other two were fatally shot in “an exchange of gunfire” on Sunday morning.
Police have arrested 22 other suspects for alleged involvement in the attacks, including a forest ranger and five forest guards from a national park that borders the villages that were attacked.
“They are accused of aiding the rebels in entering the villages,” Mr. Bishnoi said.
Human-rights groups have criticized Indian police and security forces in the past for so-called encounter shootings, which they allege are a euphemism for extrajudicial execution.
Mr. Bishnoi said the suspected separatists “fired on them” in the forest Sunday morning and police returned fire.
India’s Northeast region—home to more than 200 ethnic groups—has been troubled by separatist rebellions for more than five decades.
The aspirations for autonomy of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, have led to frequent fighting with the state government and violent clashes with the region’s Muslim settlers, who come largely from neighboring Bangladesh.
In July last year, at least 75 people died and 200,000 were pushed from their homes in five days of violent clashes between Bodos and Muslims.
The latest attacks come just days after voting in the region for the country’s weekslong federal election, which started in April. Results are due May 16.
Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate and the front-runner in the elections, said last week that illegal immigrants from Bangladesh should pack their bags if he comes to power at the polls.
Sunil Kumar, superintendent of police in Kokrajhar district, said the attacks weren’t connected to the national election. He declined to comment on the motive behind the attacks.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh condemned the attacks as “cowardly attempts to spread fear and terror” and ordered Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and federal Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde to “restore normalcy” in the area.
A curfew has been imposed in the violence-hit areas and shoot-on-sight orders are also in place there. Police said there had been no new reports of violence over the weekend.