3 bodies found as tensions roil Manipur’s buffer zone
Manipur police, in a post on X, confirmed that the three bodies were among the four men who were reported missing on January 10
Security forces found the bodies of three men in Manipur’s Churachandpur district on Thursday morning with Manipur police confirming that they were among the four people reported missing after a gunfight at a nearby buffer zone a day earlier.
The post-mortem examination of the three bodies is yet to be conducted, but prima facie it appeared that the three sustained gunshot wounds and one of them also had stab wounds on the neck, said an official, requesting anonymity. The bodies are currently at the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS), Imphal.
“The army and Assam Rifles are helping in the search for the fourth person. The bodies of the three men were found in the jungles of Haothak Tampha Kunao in Churachandpur at around 10am on Thursday,” said the official quoted above.
Manipur police, in a post on X , confirmed that the three bodies were among the four men who were reported missing on January 10. “Security forces are carrying out hectic efforts to search for the other missing person and to flush out armed miscreants from the area,” a post from Manipur police’s official account said on Thursday night.
The recovery of the bodies marks the bloodiest day in the strife-torn state since January 1, when four members of the Meitei Pangal community were gunned down. At least 201 people have now died in the ethnic clashes that began between the dominant Meiteis and the tribal Kukis in May last year, but which have seen a surge in recent weeks with more communities getting caught in the crossfire.
The four men – Ahanthem Dara (55), Thoudam Ibomcha (53), his son Thoudam Anand (27) and Oinam Romen (45) – were reported missing after residents of Bishnupur heard loud bangs of bombs and bullets being fired from the hills near Haotak Phailen village at around 3pm on Wednesday.
The Meiteis live largely in the plains of Imphal Valley while the Kukis predominantly live in the hills. As a fallout of the long-running hostilities, both communities have withdrawn to their respective strongholds.
In response, security forces have created buffer zones at different border districts, which have also been divided on ethnic lines. Bishnupur district is home to the Meiteis, while Kuki tribals dominate Churachandpur.
Security forces have set up camps and are posted on the highway to ensure that the groups remain separated, do not enter each other’s districts, and trigger violence. But many times, militants from both groups use the hills and jungle area to cross into the other districts and attack each other, according to security officials.
The sweeping ethnic violence has also led to the creation of community-based armed village defence volunteers, underling how faultlines have deepened beyond the Meitei -Kuki divide, pitting different communities and groups against each other.
Romen worked as a tractor driver for farmers in his village, Imbocha weaved bamboo cages for birds and chicken, while his son Anand worked at a brick kiln, Romen’s 28-year-old niece Mongpham Mayum Nanao said. The fourth person, Dara who is yet to be traced, was a farmer, Nanao added.
Residents of Terakhong village, where the four lived, said they were unarmed villagers, who were shot dead for going near another village to collect firewood.
Nanao said that for the past few days, villagers were collecting dry wood from the foothills near the buffer zone. “A bundle of wood in the market costs at least ₹100. So, every winter, we go to the foothills to collect wood. My uncle and other villagers thought it was safe to go to the foothills so they left the village at around 1.30pm,” Nanao said.
The village, Haotak Phailen, from where the bullets were fired is visible from our village, Terakhong, she added.
Prem Meitei, a local of Terakhong, said that at around 3pm he, along with other villagers, heard sounds of bombs exploding and gunshots from the foothills.
“Because of the cold, people go to the hills to collect firewood. There were no residents in the village across Churachandpur, so villagers thought it was safe to go near the foothill. But about two hours after they had left, we all heard sounds of bombs and gunshots from the village. The villagers got together and started checking if people had returned. It was then that we realised that four villagers from Terkahong were missing. The elders in our village informed the BSF security post there. This is how police were alerted,” Prem Meitei said.
Until late on Wednesday night, joint teams of the army, Assam Rifles and state police were searching for the four men. The search operation was called off at around midnight and resumed early on Thursday morning. Security force officials said that the bodies of the three were found in the hills, about a kilometre away from where they may have been shot dead.
A second police officer aware of the probe details said that prima facie, it appeared that the four men were killed when they entered near the border of Kuki village (Haotek Phailen).
“Residents of this Kuki village fled their houses during the ethnic clashes. It looks like some village volunteers were still guarding this village or came here after learning that Meitei people were vising the foothills of this village to collect wood. The volunteers may have resorted to firing on seeing the four Meitei men near a Kuki village. Investigation is on,” the officer added.
Ginza Vualzong, spokesperson of Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum(ITLF), an umbrella body of Kuki groups in Churachandpur, rejected the allegation. “ I do not condone the killing but this is war time in Manipur. Many innocents are killed in the conflict. Knowing the conflict is going on, it would be wise and safe for everyone not to cross each other’s territory,” he said.
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