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Indian troops hunt killers in tiger park

TROOPS on elephants were yesterday scouring a tiger reserve for tribal rebels who massacred 69 people in one of the worst outbreaks of violence for several years in India's troubled north-east.

New Delhi has sent 3,000 troops to Assam after insurgents of the outlawed Bodo Security Force raided a camp set up for displaced people. Three attackers and 69 camp-dwellers, Muslims who had fled their homes, were killed in Sunday's clash. A senior police officer said the rebels had fled into a tiger reserve near the border with Bhutan. India was seeking permission to pursue them across the frontier if necessary.

Tension between Bodo tribespeople and Bengali Muslims, most of whom have been squeezed out of neighbouring Bangladesh by poverty and overpopulation, has erupted several times in recent months. In May, 22 people were killed and hundreds injured when Bodos rioted against the incursion of Muslim settlers into their traditional areas. The Bodo Security Force has been fighting for an autonomous region north of the Brahmaputra river, which bisects the state, for six years. In that time more than 1,000 people have died.

Assam is the richest of the strategic 'seven sisters' - the mountainous north-eastern states bordering Burma and China. It is the country's main tea-growing area, and has large reserves of oil and minerals. But it is also the most violent state in a region where there is chronic friction between nomadic hill people and settlers from the overcrowded plains. Although Assam has a Hindu tradition, unlike the rest of the north-east, and most of the incomers are Muslim, tensions are ethnic and political rather than religious.

The Indian military has been engaged almost permanently in containing half a dozen rebellions in the 'seven sisters', most of whose indigenous people have closer cultural links to groups living in Burma, Tibet and China than they do to the subcontinent's Hindu majority. Assam has two separate conflicts: while the Bodo minority wants autonomy for its areas, the left-wing United Liberation Front of Assam has been fighting since the 1980s for independence for the whole state, in which only 1.5 million of the 22 million population are tribal.

Under the late Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian authorities launched a drive to lure insurgent movements into the political process. This had some success in states such as Tripura and Mizoram, where former rebels now hold power, while in Manipur a tribal uprising was stamped out. Outside Assam the worst violence is in Nagaland, where Naga insurgents have been seeking for more than four decades to carve a homeland out of the state, along with parts of Manipur and Burma.

Allegations of brutality are common on both sides of the region's many insurgencies, but human rights organisations are hampered by Indian restrictions on foreigners entering the area. While diplomats are at liberty to visit Kashmir without notice, they have to obtain permission in advance to go to any part of the north-east.

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