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India eyes terrorist groups after bombs kill 77

The level of sophistication in the bombings that killed at least 77 people in northeastern India indicates that local militants had help from other terrorist groups, officials said Friday.
Image: A paramilitary soldier stands guard at the site of an explosion
A paramilitary soldier stands guard Friday in Gauhati, India, at the site of one of 13 bomb explosions that occurred a day earlier.Bikas Das / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's hard to keep the insurgent groups straight in India's far eastern region: the United Liberation Front of Asom, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, the Gorkha Tiger Force and many more.

But despite years of violence, no one had seen anything like the 13 coordinated bombs that killed 77 people and wounded hundreds in four towns Thursday — raising the possibility that better-armed, better-trained militants have joined the fray.

The groups are battling for power, for ethnic pride and for control of drug routes in India's northeast, an isolated collection of seven states and hundreds of ethnic groups and subgroups. They fight the government and they fight each other in a region crippled by poverty and political chaos.

Many of the movements are small and poorly armed. A couple of the larger ones can put together fairly well-armed assaults and bloody bombings. Over the past decade, the violence has killed more than 10,000 people.

The United Liberation Front of Asom, which wants an independent state for the region's ethnic Assamese, is the largest of the northeast's myriad militant groups and the main suspect in Thursday's attack.

Few here, though, believe the group is capable of carrying out such a sophisticated attack, at least not on its own.

Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta, head of the Assam state police, said the United Liberation Front of Asom was the main target of the investigation. But he added that the complexity suggested local rebels were "assisted by a force who has adequate expertise in such attacks."

Islamic extremists?
He did not elaborate, but Indian media and analysts were quick to accuse Islamic extremists — the most experienced of India's militants who have long been blamed for the country's bloodiest attacks.

"There's a very strong suspicion that it was jihadis" behind the bombings Thursday, said Noni Gopal Mahanta, head of the Peace and Conflict Studies Center at Gauhati University, in Assam's capital, Gauhati. "ULFA doesn't have the capacity to hit so many points with such magnitude."

Islamic militants could have been drawn into an alliance with ULFA because a rival ethnic insurgent group, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, has recently been targeting Muslim settlers in the northeast.

A local television station, News Live, said Thursday that it had received a text message from a previously unknown group claiming responsibility for the explosions. The group, calling itself the Islamic Security Force (Indian Mujahadeen), warned of future attacks, News Live said.

The name echoes that of the Indian Mujahadeen, a group unknown until May — when it claimed to be behind bombings in the western city of Jaipur that killed 61 people. It also claimed responsibility for blasts in the western state of Gujarat in July that killed at least 45 and blasts in New Delhi in September that killed 21.

A senior police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation was in progress, said police were unaware of the group and were trying to track down the phone from which the message was sent.

Amid the region's maze of ethnicity, bloodshed and politics, it is the powerless who suffer the most.

Disgusted by violence
"I am disgusted by this violence," Durga Rai, who runs a vegetable stand in Gauhati, said Friday. "When I come out here to sell vegetables in the morning, I'm not sure I will return home alive."

The northeast is a geographic anomaly, a region dangling off India's eastern edge where most people are closer ethnically to China or Burma.

To most northeasterners, India is something between a political stepfather and an occupying power, and the insurgent groups emerged from generations of discontent.

Around here, the national government in New Delhi is seen as little more than an exploiter of the region's natural resources that does little for the indigenous people, leaving the area far less developed than much of the rest of India.

But over the years, the broad support the rebel groups originally held has dissolved amid cycles of militant attacks and government crackdowns. Many groups further isolate themselves from the people they claim to protect by supporting themselves through extortion, robbery and drug smuggling.

"Initially, I thought the militant groups like the ULFA had emerged to give the local people their due, to fight injustice, and so on," said Arati Sharma, 60, a women's rights activist in Gauhati. "Seeing their actions over the years, I have realized they are a bunch of trigger-happy rebels without any ideology."

Police like hearing such talk, and the authorities say the years of violence have turned the public away from the militants.

The reality, though, is that neither side is very popular.

"I blame both the government and the militants for the state of affairs," said Bhabesh Barua, a college student. "The government because it has failed to resolve the insurgency problem politically, and the militants for degenerating into terrorists and killing innocent noncombatants."