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Indian Separatists Strike in Assam State - 2003-03-08

Indian separatists are suspected of launching attacks that have killed three people and engulfed an oil refinery in flames in India's remote northeastern Assam state.

Police say the rebels first targeted the Digboi oil refinery by firing mortars that triggered a massive fire. The state-owned refinery is India's oldest, and lies about 500 kilometers east of Assam's main city, Gawahati. Scores of firefighters, army and paramilitary personnel joined the operation to douse the flames. People from nearby residential areas were evacuated.

Police say the rebels also blasted a major crude oil pipeline close to the refinery in Duliajan District, but the fire was put out quickly, after authorities shut down the crude oil supply.

In a third attack, police say, the rebels opened fire with automatic weapons, killing at least three people and injuring several others in a village in Goalpara district, about 200 ilometers west of Gawahati. Most of the victims were from a neighboring state.

The rebels often attack migrants, charging that the local population is in danger of losing its majority status to people from other Indian states.

Suspected rebels also launched a mortar attack on a police armory, but missed their target. A rebel group called the United Liberation Front of Assam, has claimed responsibility for the attacks. The Press Trust of India news agency says the group has threatened to carry out similar attacks in the future.

Rebels belonging to this group have often targeted oil installations, bridges, and railways in the past. They accuse the federal government of plundering the state's rich natural resources, and neglecting the local economy.

Police and army have stepped up security in the region. Assam is one of seven states in India's remote northeast, a mountainous region that is home to more than 200 ethnic groups. For decades, the region has been wracked by insurgencies led by nearly a dozen rebel groups fighting for independence or more political autonomy.