KOKRAJHAR, India – Thousands of Indian troops marched through a northeast region Wednesday to quell ethnic violence that has killed at least 38 people, but roving bands of rioters continued sporadic attacks, ripping apart homes and setting them on fire.
Nearly 200,000 people have fled homes in western Assam state, bundling meager belongings in cloths and crowding into government camps for protection from violence that erupted late last week. Hundreds of wood and thatch houses have been burned.
One woman who had gone into early labor was taken by her husband in a pushcart to a camp, where she gave birth to a girl on Sunday. Later, she learned her home had been burned down.
"I am just happy my baby is OK," said 25-year-old Ela Brahma said Wednesday in the camp, where some 1,000 people were sheltering from the violence.
Police said they have discovered dozens of bodies hacked with machetes since the violence broke out in the district of Kokrajhar. Four bodies were found on Wednesday in Chirang distract, according to police.
The clashes pit members of the ethnic Bodo community against Muslim settlers who mostly came from the former East Pakistan before it became Bangladesh in 1971. The groups have long accused each other of stealing land and clashed repeatedly over the years.
Army and paramilitary soldiers have fatally shot five people since receiving a mandate on Tuesday to shoot rioters on sight, Assam Home Secretary G.D. Tripathy said. Authorities on Wednesday reported two more deaths, bringing the overall toll to 34, and said the violence had spread within four districts.
Mobs ripped off corrugated tin rooftops from wooden and thatch homes before setting them on fire. In most cases, residents had left the homes before they were attacked.
"We fled from the village after our house was burnt. There is no security," said Champa Kachari, 35, who was staying with her three young daughters in another government camp in Kokrajhar district along with some 2,000 others, mostly Bodos. Kachari did not know where her husband was.
"Even in the camp we are struggling to find food," she said. Relief workers said Wednesday morning they had enough rice and lentils to last in the camps for about a week, but that may change with more people streaming in for shelter.
Officials lifted a 24-hour curfew in the area for a few hours to allow people to collect food.
Desperate residents piled into jeeps and atop open carts drawn by water buffalo to join caravans fleeing areas of violence.
Women crowded into camps wept over the uncertain fate of loved ones and the loss of their homes. Relief workers were desperately searching for doctors and nurses to tend to the ill and injured.
Roads were closed amid widespread protests, but train services resumed Wednesday under heavy security after three days of disruption, according to Railways spokesman S. Hajong. Paramilitary troops were standing guard along railway tracks, which had been cleared of protesters demanding that authorities restore security and order. On Tuesday, mobs hurled stones and bricks at the flagship Rajdhani Express, forcing it to reverse course and leave Assam.
Assam's lawmakers, from all parties, were visiting the area to plead for peace.
The western region of Assam sits at the mouth of a narrow corridor north of Bangladesh and linking mainland India and its remote northeast. The impoverished region has been tense for decades, with resentment between tribal groups and Muslim migrants over land, work and resources.
The last two decades, however, have seen several major flareups of violence that have killed scores and made hundreds of thousands homeless.