61 Killed, 350 Hurt In Bombings Across India's Assam State

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 31, 2008

NEW DELHI, Oct. 30 -- Eleven bomb blasts ripped through India's northeastern state of Assam on Thursday, killing at least 61 people and leaving more than 350 injured. The serial blasts took place before noon, within a span of 50 minutes.

State officials described the explosions as the worst in the violent and troubled history of Assam, where separatist insurgent groups have been active since the early 1980s. Recent bomb attacks have been blamed on Islamist fighters from neighboring Bangladesh.

"I would not say we were caught unaware," a visibly shaken Tarun Gogoi, Assam's chief minister, said at a news conference. "We had some intelligence inputs that something like this was going to happen. . . . But we didn't expect it to be this kind of a serious incident." He said he could not yet say definitively who was behind the bombings because police were too busy with rescue operations.

The first of the bombs went off in a crowded fruit and vegetable market. Others exploded in a parking lot, at a bazaar and near a railway track. Four of the blasts took place in the state capital, Guwahati.

No group immediately asserted responsibility for the blasts, but officials indicated they could be the work of a local group called the United Front of Assam, known as ULFA, which has been fighting the Indian state for an independent homeland. Other officials said the explosions may have been a joint operation by several groups active in the area, including armed Islamist groups based in Bangladesh.

"It is very early to make a conclusion, but ULFA has a history of triggering serial blasts," Assam's health minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, told reporters.

However, in an e-mailed statement, the publicity department of the outlawed ULFA denied its involvement. "The ULFA is in no way involved in the blasts and we condemn the incidents," the statement said. The group also offered condolences to family members of the dead and wished the wounded a speedy recovery.

India's opposition leader, the Hindu nationalist L.K. Advani, said the attacks "highlight the issue of Bangladeshi illegal immigrants in the country," a reference to the porous border that India shares with Bangladesh.

Television images from the market showed mangled heaps of metal and dismembered corpses strewn amid piles of potatoes and onions. Police officials said the number of dead could rise because many of the wounded were in very serious condition.

Onlookers reported that emergency workers were slow to arrive at the scenes of the attacks. Angry crowds soon formed to throw stones at police, set government vehicles on fire and even attack ambulances. Police imposed a curfew after the crowds took to the streets, and they immediately sealed Assam's borders with neighboring states. Police also began searching for suspects.

Officials said hospitals were ill-equipped to deal with the massive number of casualties and were quickly overwhelmed.

"I had gone to the market when I heard the blasts. We were shocked. People were running everywhere, vehicles were damaged and on fire," an injured witness, S.K. Dutta, told an English-language news channel, Times Now. "The smoke blinded us. The sound of the blast was deafening."

Since May, several Indian cities have been targeted by bombings in public places, and the death toll has exceeded 160. In some of the blasts, police have arrested suspects from a new group that calls itself the Indian Mujahideen. Last week, Hindu radicals were also arrested for their alleged involvement in one of the blasts.

Several separatist groups are active in Assam and in India's other Himalayan states, which border Bangladesh, China, Burma and Bhutan. Dozens of these groups, broadly organized along ethnic and religious lines, have been fighting New Delhi and one another for control of the region.

Thursday's serial bombings were the third such incident in Assam this year. Powerful explosions in March and June rocked the state. More than 10,000 people have died in attacks in the northeastern region during the past decade.

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