Terror struck Assam on Friday when a group of heavily-armed militants, dressed in army fatigues and suspected of belonging to a Bodo separatist outfit, opened indiscriminate fire and lobbed grenades at a crowded weekly market killing 14 people.
One of the attackers, who were believed to be about five in number, was killed in retaliatory action by security forces, police said.
The police said that a group of heavily-armed militants, wearing army fatigues, came to the crowded weekly Balajan Tiniali market, about 12 km from Kokrajhar, in a van around noon and fired indiscriminately killing 12 persons on the spot and injuring more than 20 others.
Two other persons succumbed to their injuries en route to the hospital, it added.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi strongly condemned the attack and said the Union Home Ministry is in touch with the Assam government.
‘Saddened by the attack in Kokrajhar. We strongly condemn it. Thoughts & prayers with the bereaved families & those injured,’ he tweeted.
‘The Home Ministry is in touch with the Assam Government & is monitoring the situation closely,’ Modi added.
The dead included a woman who was yet to be identified while six others have been identified as Mazhar Ali, Salam Ali, Danda Basumatary, Moniram Basumatary, Parmeswar Basumatary and Tapan Chakraborty.
Assam Director General of Police Mukesh Sahay said the attack was suspected to be the handiwork of National Democratic Front of Bodoland-Songobjit and the operation was still continuing in the area. AK-56 and 47 series rifles along with grenades were also recovered from the spot.
Manik Debnath, a 30-year-old shop-keeper who was a witness to the mayhem, said that about five militants, wearing army uniforms and covering their faces arrived in a van and fired continuously, which continued for 15 to 20 minutes.
“A grenade was also lobbed by the militants which set on fire eight shops and screaming people began to run helter-skelter in a bid to escape,” he said.
Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal denounced the attack and said the militants would be dealt with ‘very sternly’.
Sonowal, who is in Delhi, said the militants would be dealt with ‘very sternly’, a statement from the Chief Minister Office said.
“We will not tolerate any threat from any group. The government will not bow to any pressure while tackling terrorist groups,” he said, adding all deputy commissioners and superintendents of police across the state have been directed to be on high-alert following the attack and in view of the Independence Day.
He announced an ex gratia payment of Rs 5 lakh to the next of kin of the dead, Rs one lakh to the seriously injured and Rs 20,000 to those who sustained minor injuries in the attack.
Describing the incident as ‘very unfortunate’, Union minister of state for Home Kiren Rijiju said in New Delhi, “We have to ascertain who are exactly behind this dastardly act”.
He said, “Peace had returned to the Bodoland area and this incident has given us shock. We will ensure that the victims families are taken care of”.
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh was briefed about the attack by National Security Advisor A K Doval.
Additional Director General of Police L R Bishnoi told reporters that a preliminary probe established that the attack was carried out by the NDFB-S.
“The mobile phone recovered from the slain militant, who is yet to be identified, contains the numbers of many top NDFB-S leaders and it establishes the outfit’s involvement in the attack though the investigation is on,” he said.
Bishnoi said the NDFB-S could have acted out of frustration as the security forces had stepped up their operation against the organisation recently.
“The Unified Command had also launched an operation in areas where senior leaders are suspected to be hiding and the attack may have been launched to divert the attention of the security forces,” he added.
The security forces recovered an AK-56 rifle, two magazines, a Chinese hand grenade, 49 rounds of ammunition, three bags and a mobile phone with two SIM cards from the spot.
He said 16 people were injured in the attack, which include two women and two children.
The chief minister said, “Ensuring protection to life and property of the people is the first and foremost duty of the government.”
He appealed to the people of the state to exercise restraint, and maintain peace and harmony.
Sonowal said Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh discussed the incident with him and have conveyed their deepest condolences to the family members of those killed in the attack.
Dipali Brahma, a housewife who had gone to the market to buy provisions, said there was chaos all around and it took them some time before they realised what was happening.
“The Army and the police reached the spot around 15 minutes later and both sides exchanged fire. We were terrified and tried to take shelter behind some shops,” she said.
Three fire-tenders were rushed to the spot to douse the fire and it took more than one hour to bring it under control.
Tension prevailed in the entire Kokrajhar district with all shops and business establishments closing their shutters and vehicles remaining off the road.
State Finance, Education and Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeted that he was shocked at the barbaric violence and death of innocents.