Soldiers patrol northeast India after 35 Muslims killed

GUWAHATI, India - Indian soldiers patrolled streets in northeast Assam Sunday as the number of Muslims killed in carnage blamed on tribal separatists rose to 35 with the discovery of more bodies, police said.

Thousands of families have fled their homes since separatists went on the rampage in two districts of the restive tea-growing region, shooting dead Muslims including women and children as young as 18 months as they slept.

The violence comes during the final stretch of the country's mammoth general election, which has seen religious and ethnic tensions flare. Hindu nationalist hardliner Narendra Modi is expected to win.

Police have blamed indigenous Bodo tribesmen for the violence on Thursday and Friday nights in the region, where Muslims have migrated from across the border with impoverished Bangladesh.

A senior police officer said the death toll rose to 35 after two more bodies were discovered near Narayanguri village, 210 kilometres (130 miles) west of the state's main city of Guwahati. A girl also died overnight from her injuries.

"Two dead bodies were recovered from a river bank a few kilometres away from Narayanguri while another teenage girl injured in the attack succumbed to her injuries in a hospital," the officer told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi vowed those responsible would be punished, as security forces including federal soldiers fanned out across Baksa and neighbouring Kokrajhar district to prevent further clashes.

"We are taking stern measures and have so far arrested more than 30 people," Gogoi said.

Despite the additional security, Muslim community leader Ibrahim Ali told AFP families have fled their homes, some of which have been burnt to the ground, adding that "a sense of fear and panic looms large".

"More than 5,000 people have fled their homes in the two districts and are taking shelter in safe areas," Abdur Rahim, leader of the All Minority Students Union also said.

History of clashes

The victims are Muslims whose migrant community has long been locked in land disputes with Bodos that have spilled over into violence in the remote and restive state that borders Bhutan and Bangladesh.

Local media reported Bodos targeted the community as punishment for failing to support their candidate at the multi-phase election, although this could not be confirmed. Voting in Assam ended on April 24.

Modi said last week illegal immigrants from Bangladesh should pack their bags if he came to power at the polls, whose results are to be announced on May 16.

A political row flared over the attacks, with the ruling Congress party accusing Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of creating a "communal atmosphere" during the election.

The BJP in turn accused Congress, which is in power at the state level in Assam, of failing to control law and order.

Muslims in Baksa refused to bury 18 of those killed, in a protest against authorities whom they accuse of failing to protect them.

"Right now we are sitting in the open with 18 bodies in front of us," said Lafiqul Islam, president of the All Bengali Muslim Students Union.

"We will continue with our protest and not perform the funeral until and unless the chief minister personally visits the spot," he told AFP from Narayanguri.

Police blamed the attacks on the outlawed National Democratic Front of Bodoland, which has been demanding a separate homeland for decades, but the group denied it was behind the violence.

Seventeen people were killed in clashes in the same region in January and thousands of others fled their homes. In 2012, ethnic clashes in the same area claimed about 100 lives and displaced more than 400,000 people.