In one of the deadliest attacks in India this year, 13 powerful bombs exploded in busy Assam marketplaces over 75 minutes on Thursday, prompting investigators to unfold a worst-case scenario: Bangladeshi jihadis linking up with local militants.
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Assam’s premier militant group, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), quickly issued an email statement denying it was responsible for today’s attacks across five towns, but it is a prime suspect given its violent history since the early 1990s.
However, intelligence officials said blasts of this intensity and precision appeared beyond the known capabilities of the ULFA and a first even in a region familiar with bombings and violence: At least 66 were dead and 400 injured by close of day.
In its execution, the modus operandi appeared to follow the serial-bombing pattern seen this year in Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Delhi, which was attacked 47 days ago.
But terrorists who triggered the blasts in India’s metros used cruder bombs with chemical fertilisers like ammonium nitrate. Assam police suspect Thursday’s explosives were mostly high-grade explosives like RDX (Research and Development Explosive), available in India only with the army.
That indicated an “external link”, said officials in Delhi who stressed it was too early to reach a conclusion.
With 63 blasts in seven states over seven months, India’s ability to bounce back from repeated terror attacks is fraying, as was evident from the mobs that burnt fire-service and police vehicles and hurled stones at rescuers.
In a synchronised operation between 11 am and 12.15 pm, terrorists used timers to set off the 13 bombs strapped to cars, autorickshaws, motorcycles and bicycles.
Some victims were charred to death in their vehicles, and clouds of black smoke towered over Guwahati as the streets filled with the screams of the injured and the dying.
Many of the dead were literally torn apart and vehicles in the target zone were turned to charred heaps of metal.
Identifying the bombers will be a particularly formidable task in diverse and divided Assam. With its Bodos, Bangladeshi immigrants, Indian plains' migrants and tribals, the state is an anthropologist’s delight and administrator’s nightmare. Bodos and Muslims fought bloody battles this month.
"Such acts of terror are the result of the politics of hate that is being spread (in India)," said Minister of State for Home Shakeel Ahmed.
Officials and politicians blamed either the ULFA or Bangladesh’s Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), a group that draws inspiration from Osama bin Laden and has previously been suspected of violence in these parts.
“Unlike in the past, the intensity of the blasts was very high this time,” said Inspector General of Police (Special Branch) Khagen Sharma. “The needle of suspicion points to jehadi outfits.”
“There are a lot of different reports and a lot of different theories,” said Union Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta, who moved from one meeting after another to discuss the situation in the state that is India’s window to the seven other northeastern states.
In Delhi, Leader of the Opposition L.K. Advani said the attacks “again highlight the issue of Bangladeshi illegal immigrants in the country”.