(AP) GAUHATI, India – In a shattering series of attacks, suspected separatists hit nine targets — a railroad station and eight markets — with bombs and gunfire across two states in northeastern India on Saturday, killing more than 40 people.
The violence was among the deadliest to hit this ethnic patchwork region, where more than three dozen insurgent groups have been active — including one of Asia’s longest running separatist conflicts, dating to shortly before India gained independence from Britain in 1947.
No group immediately claimed responsibility, and it wasn’t clear whether the nine attacks in Nagaland and Assam states were linked.
But Inspector-General Khagen Sarma, the top police official of Assam state, told The Associated Press he “cannot rule out” the possible involvement of the outlawed National Democratic Front of Boroland, a tribal separatist group that is active in the region.
Sunday is the 18th anniversary of the group, which is demanding a homeland for Boroland, a region that straddles both states. On Friday, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, the state’s top elected official, offered a truce to the Boroland rebels and the region’s largest insurgent group — the United Liberation front of Assam — beginning Oct. 16 if they accepted a cease-fire.
Nagaland has also been the scene of an insurgency that has killed 15,000 people since Naga rebels began fighting for a separate nation nearly six decades ago. The rebels want special status for Nagaland state, which borders Myanmar and where most of the 2 million Nagas — most Christians — live in predominantly Hindu India.
The day began with two powerful bombs that exploded minutes apart in Nagaland, killing 26 people and injuring 84, the state’s Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio told AP after visiting the sites of the attacks.
“We cannot say who is responsible. It is still too early,” Rio said by telephone from the state capital, Kohima.
The first blast occurred in the railway station in Dimapur, Nagaland’s commercial hub, and was followed soon after by a powerful explosion just as shopkeepers were opening up for business in the city’s popular “Hong Kong” market, said C. Kuki, an inspector in the police control room.
The railway blast occurred shortly before a train was to arrive from neighboring Assam state and the main platform was crowded with passengers, said C. Yanthan, a railway official. He said the injured had been taken to hospitals across Dimapur.
Hours later, seven other attacks hit neighboring Assam state, leaving a total of 18 people dead.
The deadliest of the attacks occurred in the small town of Makri Jhoda bordering Bangladesh, where unidentified gunmen sprayed gunfire at a crowded marketplace, killing 11 people and injuring dozens of others, said local Superintendent of Police L.R. Bishnoi.
The assailants then killed four more people as they left the market, he said. Makri Jhoda is 175 miles west of Gauhati, the Assam state capital.
Two simultaneous explosions occurred in Assam’s Bongaigaon town. Two people died in the first while a hotel was damaged, but no one was hurt in the second.
In the town of Chirang near India’s border with Bhutan, one man was killed and seven injured in another explosion, police said. Two other explosions took place in Baihata Charali and Abhayapuri towns, but no casualties were immediately reported.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan strongly condemned the attacks.
“No cause or grievance can justify such senseless and cruel acts that target innocent civilians,” Annan said in a statement from his spokesman’s office.
India’s government is engaged in talks to try to end the rebel violence in Nagaland.
The Indian government has met with one faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, since signing a cease-fire agreement. A cease-fire agreement also has been reached with the rival NSCN faction, but no formal talks have been initiated with it.
Assam also witnessed a major attack by suspected separatist rebels on Aug. 15, India’s Independence Day, when 15 people were killed in a blast during a school parade.
Insurgent groups in India’s northeast are pushing demands ranging from independent homelands to autonomy within the nation. The rebels say they are seeking to protect their ethnic identities and allege that the federal government has exploited the resources in this mineral and oil-rich region.
The Indian government denies the allegation, and has signed peace agreements with several groups, ending decades of insurgency in some areas. In return, the former militants have been given jobs and limited administrative control within the Indian nation.