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India urges calm after at least 32 Muslims killed

GUWAHATI, India -- The Indian government appealed for calm on Sunday after at least 32 Muslims were shot dead in the northeastern state of Assam in attacks targeting women and children and blamed on tribal separatists.

As more than 5,000 soldiers and police patrolled the restive tea-growing region, Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said the killings appeared aimed at provoking a “full fledged” communal conflict.

Police blame indigenous Bodo tribesmen for the violence on Thursday and Friday nights in the region, where Muslims have long been accused of grabbing land after migrating from across the Bangladesh border.

“The objective of this (separatist) group seems to be aimed at starting a full fledged communal conflagration,” Shinde said in a statement, adding the violence was targeted at women and children.

“The public leaders of both Bodo and (the) minority community must see to it that things do not deteriorate,” the minister said, urging the region to maintain “peace and calm.”

The violence comes during the final stretch of the country's mammoth general election, which has seen religious and ethnic tensions flare and deadly attacks staged elsewhere in the country including by Maoist rebels.

Hindu nationalist hardliner Narendra Modi and his opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are expected to defeat the ruling Congress party after a decade in power.

Thousands of families have fled their homes since masked gunmen went on the rampage in Baksa and neighboring Kokrajhar district, shooting Muslims dead including children as young as 18 months as they slept.

Shinde put the death toll at 32. But a senior police official said two more bodies were discovered on Sunday while a teenager died of her injuries overnight Saturday, taking the number killed to 35.

“Two dead bodies were recovered from a riverbank a few kilometers 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.

Some 4,000 Central Armed Police Force officers and 1,500 soldiers have already been deployed, with another 1,000 police on their way, Shinde's statement said.

Despite the tight security, Muslim community leader Ibrahim Ali told AFP families have fled their homes, some of which have been razed, 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,” said Abdur Rahim, leader of the All Minority Students Union.

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