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GAUHATI, India – Police in India arrested 22 people after separatist rebels went on a rampage, burning homes and killing 29 Muslims in the worst outbreak of ethnic violence in the remote northeastern region in two years, officials said Saturday.
The arrests came after authorities called in the army to restore order in Assam state and imposed an indefinite curfew in the wake of the killings blamed on the rebels from the Bodo tribe, who have long accused Muslim residents of sneaking into India illegally from neighboring Bangladesh.
A state minister for border areas, Siddique Ahmed, said after visiting the violence-hit areas that his government and the ruling Congress party failed to protect the victims, who included at least eight women and as many children.
"Even 2-year-old children who could barely walk have been shot dead. I have never witnessed such scenes in my life," he told reporters.
Police said they arrested 22 people who allegedly burned homes or provided shelter to the insurgents, according to regional police inspector general L. R. Bishnoi. He gave no other details.
He said the rebels 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 percent of the state's 33 million people.
However, the rebel faction in an email to reporters Saturday denied the charge and blamed the killings on the state government.
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.
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.
The rebels accuse the federal government of exploiting the region's rich mineral resources but neglecting the local people.
At least 10,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in Assam state alone in the last three decades.