Attackers wearing military uniforms shot dead at least 14 people and wounded 15 today in a busy market area in a town in India's restive northeastern state of Assam, in an attack blamed by the authorities on a regional separatist group.
The gunmen fired indiscriminately and threw hand grenades at the crowded weekly market in Kokrajhar, a town 220 km (137 miles) by road west of the state's commercial capital Guwahati, eyewitnesses said.
One assailant was killed and security forces were in pursuit of three or four others hiding in a nearby forest, Assam police chief Mukesh Sahay told reporters.
Sahay said police had recovered an AK-47 rifle and explosives from the dead gunman, as well as a three-wheeler van the assailants had arrived in.
He blamed the outlawed National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit) group, a militant outfit fighting for a separate homeland for the indigenous Bodo tribespeople.
The dead gunman was yet to be identified, said Sahay.
A senior home ministry official in New Delhi said preliminary reports indicated the attack, one of the deadliest in recent years in a region with a history of sectarian and separatist bloodshed, was carried out by the group.
"Police have launched a hunt to trace insurgents hiding near the incident spot. It is a militant attack and we will be sending a team from Delhi to investigate further," the official said.
However, there was no claim of responsibility for the attack.
Home ministry in touch with Assam government
Asserting that he was saddened by the deadly terrorist attack in Kokrajhar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his thoughts and prayers are with the bereaved families and the injured.
"Saddened by the attack in Kokrajhar. We strongly condemn it. Thoughts & prayers with the bereaved families & those injured," the Prime Minister said in a series of tweets.
He further said that the home ministry is in touch with the Assam government and is monitoring the situation closely.
Expressing concern over the sorry state of affairs, Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal told ANI, "Our government is committed to protection of people of Assam."
Senior officials were directed to rush to the spot, he mentioned. He added ex gratia of Rs 5 lakh will be given to next of kin of people who died, while Rs1 lakh would be given for the injured.
Meanwhile, National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval also met Sonowal.
Assam finance minister Hemant Bishwar told ANI that Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Assam Police and paramilitary forces are conducting a joint combing operation to neutralise remaining extremists. He said that the army has been kept at standby and will be called if necessary.
Assam has suffered years of tribal insurgencies
Assam, a remote and underdeveloped state, has suffered from years of ethnic and tribal insurgencies. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won power in a state election in May for the first time after pledging to increase spending in the state.
"This attack is intended to destabilise peace in Assam," said Sarma.
Violence in Assam and wider northeast has fallen as more militant groups have called ceasefires, although attacks by one community against another are not uncommon.
Militants fighting for a Bodo homeland killed at least 70 people, most of them tea-plantation workers from other parts of India, in a series of attacks in Assam in late 2014.