Complex attacks raise new fears
India bombings hint insurgents had outside help
GAUHATI, India - It's hard to keep the insurgent groups straight in India's far eastern region: the United Liberation Front of Asom, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, the Gorkha Tiger Force, and many more.
But despite years of violence, no one had seen anything like the 13 coordinated bomb attacks that killed 77 people and wounded hundreds in four towns Thursday - raising the possibility that better-armed, better-trained militants have joined the fray.
The groups are battling for power, for ethnic pride and for control of drug routes in India's northeast, an isolated collection of seven states and hundreds of ethnic groups and subgroups. They fight the government and they fight each other in a region crippled by poverty and political chaos.
Many of the movements are small and poorly armed. A couple of the larger ones can put together fairly well-armed assaults and bloody bombings. Over the past decade, the violence has killed more than 10,000 people.
The United Liberation Front of Asom, which wants an independent state for the region's ethnic Assamese, is the largest of the northeast's myriad militant groups and the main suspect in Thursday's attack.
Few here, though, believe the group is capable of carrying out such a coordinated attack, at least not on its own.
Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta, head of the Assam state police, said the United Liberation Front of Asom was the main target of the investigation. But he added that the complexity suggested the local rebels had help.
He did not elaborate, but Indian media and analysts were quick to accuse Islamic extremists - the most experienced of India's militants who have long been blamed for the country's bloodiest attacks.
"There's a very strong suspicion that it was jihadis" behind the Thursday bombings, said Noni Gopal Mahanta, head of the Peace and Conflict Studies Center at Gauhati University, in Assam's capital, Gauhati. Asom "doesn't have the capacity to hit so many points with such magnitude."
Islamic militants could have been drawn into an alliance with the group because a rival ethnic insurgent group, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, has recently been targeting Muslim settlers in the northeast.
A local television station, News Live, said Thursday that it had received a text message from a previously unknown group claiming responsibility for the explosions. The group, calling itself the Islamic Security Force (Indian Mujahadeen), warned of future attacks, News Live said.
The name echoes that of the Indian Mujahadeen, a group unknown until May - when it claimed credit for bombings in the western city of Jaipur that killed 61. "I am disgusted by this violence," Durga Rai, who runs a vegetable stand in Gauhati, said yesterday. "When I come out here to sell vegetables in the morning, I'm not sure I will return home alive."
The northeast is a geographic anomaly, a region dangling off India's eastern edge where most people are closer ethnically to China or Burma.