Six people, including a forest guard, were killed in violence at the disputed Assam-Meghalaya border in the early hours of Tuesday after a truck allegedly laden with illegally felled timber was intercepted by forest guards from Assam.
Apprehending law and order situation following the incident, Meghalaya has suspended mobile internet services in seven districts, while the Assam police has sounded ‘alert' in the border districts and also ordered an enquiry by a retired high court judge into the matter
In a tweet tagging Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Assam CM Himanta Sarma, Meghalaya's Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, whose party is an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party, complained that the Assam police and forest guards 'entered Meghalaya and resorted to unprovoked firing.'
Assam police officials however said the truck was intercepted in West Karbi Anglong district of the state by a state Forest department team and a mob from the Meghalaya side had later attacked the team of forest guards and policemen from the state, which led firing by the Assamese side to control the situation.
"Five of the six killed at Mukroh village in West Jaintia Hills district were Meghalaya residents and one is from the Assam forest guard," Sangma said.
Sangma announced an ex-gratia compensation of Rs 5 lakh each for the next of kin of the deceased individuals.
Later, the Assam government said it will hand over the investigation into the firing incident to a central or neutral agency and provide Rs 5 lakh each to the next of kin of the six deceased as ex-gratia.
In a statement, the Assam government also said it has ordered action against several police and forest officials, including transfer of the district superintendent of police.
"The Meghalaya government strongly condemns the incident where the Assam Police & Assam Forest Guards entered Meghalaya & resorted to unprovoked firing. GoM will take all steps to ensure that justice is served & action is taken against those responsible in this inhuman act," he said on the social media platform.
The Meghalaya chief minister also tweeted, "I also appeal to our citizens to maintain peace and harmony in the state. The state government is taking all the necessary steps to ensure that law and order is maintained."
The two states' have a long disputed border. While talks have resolved part of the dispute, certain sections still remain properly un-demarcated.
West Karbi Anglong superintendent of police Imdad Ali told PTI that the Assam forest department team intercepted and stopped the truck at Mukru area within his district carrying the illegal timber towards West Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya around 3 am.
As the truck tried to flee, the forest guards fired at it and deflated a tyre. The vehicle's driver and handyman and another person were then apprehended, though others managed to escape, he said.
Police reinforcements were rushed to the spot when the forest guards contacted Zirikending police station.
After the police reached the spot, a large number of people from Meghalaya armed with 'daos' (dagger) and other weapons gathered at the spot around 5 am, the officer said.
The mob surrounded the forest guards and the police personnel demanding immediate release of those arrested and attacked them which prompted the police to resort to firing to bring the situation under control, Ali said.
"A forest home guard and three persons of the Khasi community of Meghalaya were killed in the incident," the SP said.
"The situation is under control now," he said adding that top officers of the district are rushing to the remote area.
Initially, four people were killed and later two others succumbed to their injuries, another top police official said in Guwahati.
He also said the three persons arrested by Assam police has been handed over to the Meghalaya side as a ‘confidence-building measure' following discussions between top civil and police administration of the two adjoining districts.
“The forest guard was killed by members of the mob with sharp weapons, who also snatched away his rifle. It was then that the Assam side had to fire to control the situation,” the official, who wished not to be named, said.
He added that the body of the forest guard had been taken by Meghalaya police and will be returned after conduct of the post-mortem examination.
“The Cabinet will sit and decide on the next course of action which the Government will take with regards to this incident,” the Meghalaya chief minister tweeted.
The Meghalaya government has suspended mobile internet services in West Jaintia Hills, East Jaintia Hills, East Khasi Hills, Ri Bhoi, Eastern West Khasi Hills, West Khasi Hills and South West Khasi Hills districts for 48 hours from 10.30 am on Tuesday.
A police official said in Guwahati that an alert has been sounded in all districts bordering Meghalaya and the superintendents of police have been told to keep a strict watch on any possible law and order situation.
Assam and Meghalaya have a longstanding dispute in 12 stretches of borderlands. The two northeastern states signed a memorandum of understanding in March this year in the presence of Shah in New Delhi towards ending the dispute in six of them.
Meghalaya was carved out of Assam in 1972 and had since then challenged the Assam Reorganisation Act, 1971, which is recognised by Assam as its border.