By Biswajyoti Das
GUWAHATI, India (Reuters) - Police shot dead four rioters in India's northeastern state of Assam on Tuesday as security forces struggled to contain ethnic fighting that has killed 26 people and left remote hamlets in flames, forcing tens of thousands from their homes.
Rioting between Bodo tribespeople and Muslim settlers has raged for days. Some of the victims died of machete wounds, aid workers who had seen the bodies said.
Police opened fire on a mob that was burning property in the Bodo-dominated Kokrajhar district, killing the four, police inspector general S.N. Singh told Reuters.
Earlier, hundreds of men armed with spears, clubs and rocks attacked an express train passing through Kokrajhar, injuring several passengers. In another incident, several people suffered bullet wounds and others were injured in a stampede when police fired to disperse a gang of 400, a senior police official said.
Soldiers and federal paramilitary troops patrolled Kokrajhar town and outlying areas on armored vehicles mounted with machine guns. The government said more security reinforcements were travelling to the region.
In defiance of an overnight curfew, rival mobs spread to rural areas and neighboring districts overnight, targeting hamlets along river banks and in the jungle. Some 500 villages have been destroyed by arson.
"The security forces were silent spectators when village after village was burnt down," veteran local politician Urkhao Gwra Brahma told Reuters.
Ringed by China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan, India's northeast is home to more than 200 ethnic and tribal groups and has been racked by separatist revolts since India's independence from Britain in 1947.
In recent years Hindu and Christian tribes have vented strong anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment against Bangladeshi settlers. The Bodo tribe has clashed with Bengalis in deadly riots several times since the 1950s.
The latest violence was sparked on Friday night when unidentified men killed four youths in Kokrajhar district, police and district officials said. In retaliation, armed Bodos attacked Muslims, suspecting them of being behind the killings.
Hagrama Mohilary, the leader of the tribal council governing the region, warned that former separatist rebels had joined the violence to protect Bodo villages. He called for the rebels, who are officially observing a ceasefire, to lay down their arms.
Bodo tribes shot at Muslim villages close to the border with Bhutan on Monday night, a senior police officer who asked not to be named told Reuters. He said no casualties had been reported.
Assam's chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, told TV network CNN-IBN that he hoped the situation would be under control within two days. He said some 30,000 villagers have fled their homes and taken shelter in relief camps, but local officials said the numbers were at least twice that.
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) criticized Gogoi for not stopping the rioting and Prime Minister Manomhan Singh called the chief minister asking him to do everything possible to stop the violence. The Hindu nationalist BJP has in the past been accused of fanning religious conflicts.
Tribal leader Mohilary said relief camps were overcrowded and suffering a shortage of food and medicine because roadblocks across the region had stopped supply trucks.
(Editing by Nick Macfie and Alison Williams)