Homes set on fire, militants flee to Bhutan after Assam massacre: police

GUWAHATI, India Thu May 8, 2014 5:26am EDT

A man rides a bicycle in front of a bus that was burnt by a mob on the national highway near Rongia town in the northeastern Indian state of Assam August 16, 2012. REUTERS/Utpal Baruah

A man rides a bicycle in front of a bus that was burnt by a mob on the national highway near Rongia town in the northeastern Indian state of Assam August 16, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Utpal Baruah

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GUWAHATI, India (Reuters) - Several homes and stores in India's tea-growing state of Assam were set on fire by unidentified persons, police said, the latest attack in an area where Muslim villagers were killed in a massacre last week.

The unrest on Wednesday night comes towards the end of a marathon national election that has heightened ethnic and religious divisions in some parts of India.

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), widely expected to emerge as the largest party in elections that end next week, has strongly condemned the violence and blamed the Congress party, which runs Assam and leads the national government.

But the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, has ramped up verbal attacks on illegal immigration by Muslims from nearby Bangladesh, drawing criticism from his opponents that he is stirring up trouble.

At least 41 people were killed in Assam by suspected militants belonging to the Bodo tribe in three massacres last week. They were believed to be revenge attacks after Muslims voted against the Bodo candidate.

Security forces on Thursday said the suspected Bodo militants had since fled to neighboring Bhutan.

India shares a border with the Himalayan country and citizens do not need any documents to travel there.

"As the border is open, it is easier for the militants to cross over," S. N. Singh, a senior police officer told reporters. He said the Indian government had asked Bhutan to keep a watch on the border.

Sporadic outbreaks of violence are common against Muslims who live alongside the Bodo tribe in western Assam, near the border with Bangladesh.

Bodo militants say the Muslims are undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh who have taken their ancestral lands, but members of the minority group say they were mostly born in India.

(Writing by Sruthi Gottipati; Editing by Tommy Wilkes & Kim Coghill)

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