GUWAHATI, India (Reuters) - Indian authorities suspect that Islamist groups in collusion with separatist militants carried out coordinated bomb blasts in the Assam state that killed 77 people and wounded more than 320.
Separatist movements have riddled India’s remote northeast for decades, but the level of sophistication and precision of Thursday’s bombings also echo similar blasts across India over the past year which have been blamed on Islamist groups.
Bangladesh-based Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami (HuJI) is one of the main suspects in Thursday’s attack. Police say the Islamist group could have sought to avenge attacks on Muslim settlers by indigenous tribes that killed at least 47 people last month.
“Our initial investigation points that these attacks were carried out by jihadi forces with the help of local militant groups,” Khagen Sharma, inspector general of police in Assam and chief Assam’s intelligence services, told Reuters.
The separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) is also suspected, but some police and security experts say the group may have only played a supporting or logistical role. ULFA has denied any involvement.
“We had information about jihadi and Ulfa elements planning strikes in Assam,” Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi said.
Seven people were injured in Guwahati on Friday after angry residents protesting against the blasts clashed with police near one blast site. Police fired into the air and a curfew was later imposed in the market area to thwart further protests.
Assam is one of seven states in the remote northeast racked by insurgency, connected to India by a thin strip of land and surrounded by Bangladesh, China, Myanmar and Bhutan.
Over the years Muslim settlers, mostly from Bangladesh, have moved to this Hindu and tribal-dominated region, leading to increased ethnic tensions that could have played into the hands of both separatists and Islamists.
Analysts say plastic explosives were used in the blast to cause maximum damage and were remotely detonated within five minutes of each other using timer devices — hallmarks of strikes by suspected Islamist groups in India.
“HuJI has actually been fingered by Assam police as being involved in the attack, an accusation substantiated by the discovery of RDX (plastic) explosives,” U.S. private intelligence firm Stratfor said in a report.
Indian home ministry officials said on Friday they had warned the Assam government of a possible militant strike after Indian authorities intercepted a telephone conversation between Pakistan and HUJI operatives in Bangladesh referring to Assam.
“The Islamic groups from Bangladesh were using the state as a transit route to move in the rest of the country,” Sharma said.
“Their activities in Assam were confined to supplying weapons and explosives, but they have become more active in Assam recently,” he said.
The bombings in Assam have underscored the fragile nature of India’s internal security, analysts say.
“At the moment, we don’t have a long-term strategy, things look really bad,” security analyst C. Uday Bhaskar told Reuters in New Delhi.
A wave of bomb attacks has hit India in recent months, killing more than 125 people. Police have blamed most of those attacks on Islamist militants, although Hindu militants have also been suspected of carrying out several attacks.
With general elections due by early 2009, India’s main Hindu-nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party said the government had failed to check the influx of militants from Bangladesh, a sentiment echoed by Indian newspapers.
“India can no longer afford the growing perception of being led by an excessively gentlemanly prime minister and a dandy but weak home minister,” The Times of India newspaper said in an editorial headlined “India Under Siege.”
The Assam blasts also exposed poor disaster preparedness.
“There is a shortage of blood in hospitals and we have sought help from NGOs,” said C.K. Bhuyan, an official in Guwahati, Assam’s main city where 41 people died in four separate bombings. Seven other bombs went off in three other towns in the state.
Writing by Bappa Majumdar; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Sanjeev Miglani