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By Biswajyoti Das
KOKRAJHAR, India, July 25 (Reuters) - Indian security forces patrolled deserted streets on Wednesday after days of ethnic riots in Assam state killed at least 36 people, forced tens of thousands to flee their razed homes and shut down road and rail transport.
The government deployed about 1,000 soldiers to restore calm after police struggled to quell waves of violence between Bodo tribespeople and Muslim settlers in the remote northeast of the country. The clashes first erupted at the weekend.
Gunbattles between police and roving mobs of rioters armed with guns, machetes and sticks had continued overnight, despite police warnings that violators would be shot on sight if they broke a curfew. Police said at least one rioter was killed.
The violence appeared to have ebbed on Wednesday.
“Thankfully, things have calmed down quite a bit in the past 24-28 hours,” an army spokesman said.
But safety fears left at least 30 passenger trains and 20 goods trains carrying grains and medicines stranded along a narrow corridor that connects the state to the rest of India on Wednesday. Three trains were able to move later in the day.
Some trains carrying tea and petroleum products - key economic resources in the state - were also stuck.
About 150,000 people had been displaced by the violence, although some have returned to their homes, Shambhu Singh, a joint secretary at India’s federal home ministry, told reporters during a visit to Assam.
In one refugee camp, set up in a school, people feared more attacks and worried about shortages of essential supplies.
“Till now, no police official has visited our camp. There is no supply of food, no medicines. We don’t even have enough fire wood for cooking,” said 35-year-old Mohammad Aharan Sheikh, a farmer who sought shelter at the school along with his parents and young children.
Shops and businesses were shuttered and streets deserted in the violence-hit Kokrajhar district. Dozens of soldiers staged a march on the outskirts of the main district town, also called Kokrajhar, to try to instil confidence among locals.
But the area was deserted and there was no one tending the surrounding rice paddies although it was the sowing season.
A senior Assam police officer said the death toll from the violence had risen to 36.
In Namapara, a town on the outskirts of Kokrajhar, the roads were also deserted as thousands locked up their houses and fled to camps or relatives’ homes after rioters burnt down several villages and cars in the area. Clouds of smoke billowed from a row of houses.
The violence was unlikely to affect production of Assam tea, the state’s most famous product, said A. R. Kasera, former chairman of the Assam Tea Planters’ Association.
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 settlers from mostly Muslim Bangladesh, which neighbours Assam.
The latest violence erupted just days after floods killed more than 100 people and left at least 400,000 homeless in Assam.
Bodos have felt marginalised in their homeland by waves of immigration from Bangladesh since the 1950s. Muslims make up about 40 percent of the state’s population and form a majority in some districts. The Bodos feel neglected by the central government and accuse the non-tribal majority of Assam of exploiting them and letting the flow of immigrants continue.
In 1983, at least 2,000 people, mainly Bangladeshi immigrants, were killed in clashes in central Assam. (Reporting by Biswajyoti Das in Guwahati and Annie Banerji in New Delhi; additional reporting by Rajendra Jadhav in Mumbai; writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Ross Colvin and Nick Macfie)