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Assam lives in fear of the unknown bomb

By Syed Zarir Hussain, IANS

Guwahati : "Where will the next bomb be?" This is the question most people in Assam are asking now.

After a spate of horrible bombings in cities, smaller towns and even villages in this northeast Indian state despite a military offensive that officials claim is "massive", no one knows for sure when or where the Assamese separatists will strike next.

And that's a frightening prospect.

There were explosions Saturday night in eastern Assam that killed four people and wounded 45 more. Two people died in Tinsukia and one person each was killed at Diphu and Doomdooma towns.

The two blasts in Tinsukia and one at Diphu took place in crowded marketplaces. In Doomdooma the target was cinemagoers.

From pressure cooker bombs to explosives concealed in sacks and strapped to bicycles to landmines and other improvised devices, militants in Assam have put to shame claims of a successful anti-insurgency operation.

The three explosions in Tinsukia and one at Doomdooma took place in an area dominated by soldiers of the 2nd Mountain Division of the Indian Army, currently heading the battle against the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA).

Police blamed the serial blasts Saturday on ULFA, a rebel group fighting for an independent homeland since 1979.

The ULFA has not owned up to the attacks.

"Blame it on ULFA or ISI (Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence), the fact remains that there is no security in Assam. Where is the next bomb? Is it safe to go out? These are questions that comes to mind frequently," says Arindam Hatibaruah, a college teacher in Tinsukia.

The smaller towns and villages apart, Assam's main city Guwahati has been hit by at least a dozen bombings in the past six months. Last week six people were killed and about 20 wounded in a blast at the Machkhowa market.

"Why can't the security agencies prevent such attacks? What is the point in talking about military operations if rebels can come and attack wherever they want?" asked Anwar Hussain, a middle-aged man who lost his teenaged son last week in the Machkhowa bombing.

Security officials privately admit to being nonplussed by the modus operandi of the rebels.

"It is not possible to frisk each and every person and someone carrying the explosives in a bus or a bicycle does sneak past the security posts," a senior Assam police official said requesting anonymity.

The recent attacks have put a question mark on the government's handling of the ULFA problem.

"It appears there is no government in Assam, the way bombings are going on. This is a low-intensity war and the worst sufferers are the common people. Everyone here is a loser," said Sammujjal Bhattacharya, an advisor to the All Assam Students Union.

"These acts of violence and bombings at crowded places, the targeting of innocent civilians, are nothing but inhuman acts which are highly condemnable," Assam government spokesperson and Education Minister Ripun Borah said.

A massive anti-insurgency operation is on since January under a unified command structure involving the army, police and paramilitary troopers.

The ULFA is also blamed for killing about 80 people in January. Sixty of them were Hindi-speaking migrant workers.

The central government launched a military offensive against the ULFA after the January strikes, killing 60 rebels and arresting about 600 more cadres.

A fragile peace process between the central government and ULFA representatives collapsed in September last year with New Delhi accusing the rebel group of stepping up violence and extortion in Assam.

"There is a need for both the ULFA and New Delhi to come for negotiations. Nobody wants violence and killings in Assam," noted Assamese writer Indira Goswami told IANS.

Goswami was earlier chosen leader of a civil society group by the ULFA to pave the way for talks between the outfit and the government – the process, however, collapsed with both sides adopting a belligerent posture.

"Assam is turning out to be a killing field and only god can save commoners," said Mamoni Das, a housewife who lost her husband to an explosion in Guwahati earlier this year.