At least 15 civilians and one soldier were killed in a botched ambush and retaliatory violence in Nagaland’s Mon district over 24 hours, prompting the State government and the Army to order a probe into the incident.
Unconfirmed reports put the civilian death toll at 17.
On Saturday evening, a special unit of the Army mistakenly opened fire at a pick-up van carrying coal miners from the Tiru area to their village Oting about 15 km away, killing six on board. The incident happened at about 5 p.m.
Seven more civilians and a soldier died when villagers, alarmed by the gunshots and the death of their brethren, clashed with the troops about an hour later. Several civilians and soldiers were injured in the confrontation. Two villagers have been missing since the incident.
At least two vehicles of the Army Special unit were set on fire.
Following the incident, protests erupted across Nagaland on Sunday with a mob of about 500 men attacking and vandalising a camp of the paramilitary Assam Rifles in district headquarters Mon. At least two persons were killed during the attack, a police official said.
District official said four civilians injured during Saturday’s violence were admitted to a hospital in Mon while two others were taken to the Assam Medical College and Hospital in Dibrugarh. Local tribal organisations claimed 11 villagers were injured and feared the two who went missing were dead.
Soon after the violence in Mon, Section 144 of the CrPC was imposed in the district to prevent gatherings and restricting the movement of vehicles barring those carrying essential items from Sunday. The State government also suspended mobile Internet and data services and bulk SMS in the entire Mon district.
CM, Amit Shah offer condolences
Union Home Minister Amit Shah said he was “anguished” by the ambush blunder, and promised to investigate the incident by a high-level special investigation team (SIT) and ensure justice to the bereaved families.
Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio, who was in Delhi, condemned the incident before returning to Nagaland. He chaired a cabinet meeting in the capital Kohima in the evening.
The Chief Minister’s Office said he will visit Mon on Monday to attend the funeral of the civilians killed.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was among opposition leaders who demanded a thorough probe into the incident and fast justice for the victims.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted: “This is heart-wrenching. GOI must give a real reply. What exactly is the home ministry doing when neither civilians nor security personnel are safe in our own land?”
Organisations such as the Naga Hoho, the apex Naga tribal body and the Naga Mothers’ Association condemned the incident. The Naga Students’ Federation unfurled its flag at half-mast to protest the killings.
The extremist Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, the key player in the Naga peace talks, described it as a “black day” for the Nagas.
“It is learned the killing was the work of the trigger-happy 21st Para Commandos/Assam Rifles. The Nagas had in the past faced trigger-happy Indian security forces, acting with impunity under the Government of India’s AFSPA which is mainly used against the Naga political movement,” the outfit said in a statement.
Nagaland’s Mon district borders Myanmar from where members of the NSCN (Khaplang-Yung Aung) are said to carry out hit-and-run operations.
An Army officer said there was specific input of the movement of NSCN (K-YA) cadres in a vehicle of specific colour and type following which the Tiru-Oting area was cordoned off. The coal miners approached in a similar vehicle and “did not cooperate” when asked to stop, he added.
The shooting ensued, apparently instinctively.
The Army’s 3 Corps based near Nagaland’s Dimapur town virtually admitted to an intelligence failure with a statement of regret.
It said a specific operation was planned to be conducted in the area of Tiru based on credible intelligence of the likely movement of insurgents.
“The incident and its aftermath are deeply regretted. The cause of the unfortunate loss of lives is being investigated at the highest level and appropriate action will be taken as per the course of law,” the statement said.
It also said the security forces suffered severe injuries in the incident and confirmed the jawan’s death.
Local organisations have demanded action against the guilty personnel and threatened to approach national and international human rights organisations. Members of the victims’ families refused to receive their bodies if justice is not delivered fast.
Reacting to the incident, the Eastern Nagaland People’s Organisation (ENPO) announced the withdrawal of six tribes it represents from the annual Hornbill Festival ongoing at Kisama near Kohima. The ENPO had a few months ago adopted a resolution against bloodshed in its area.
People in Dimapur, Kohima and other towns carried out a candlelight march on Sunday evening to mourn the death of the civilians.