Guwahati/New Delhi/Kohima: At least 16 civilians were killed as a counter-insurgency operation by the Army’s Assam Rifles against militants in Nagaland’s Mon district “went wrong” on Saturday night. One soldier was also killed in the mob rioting that followed. In a clear violation of the laid-down procedures for all such “joint” operations, the Assam Rifles appears to have ignored the mandatory requirement to involve the state police in the operation, that is part of the rulebook under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.
The incident took place between Oting and Tiru villages in Mon district, which borders Myanmar, where a group of daily wage laborers from Oting village were said to be returning home from a coal mine in a pickup van when they were allegedly fired upon by Army personnel. The Army had laid an ambush to conduct an operation in the area against militants of the Yung Aung faction of the NSCN (K).
On the basis of inputs from locals, security sources said that at least six labourers were killed in the first firing incident. Soon after that, irate villagers reached the spot and started demanding the bodies of those killed. The angry local villagers, who alleged they saw security personnel changing the attire of those killed, reportedly set ablaze two security vehicles, triggering another round of firing by the forces to “control the situation”, in which at least 10 villagers and one soldier died.
In New Delhi, the Indian Army said on Sunday that it had ordered a Court of Inquiry into the killings of several civilians and expressed deep regret over the incident. The Army said the cause of the “unfortunate” loss of lives was being investigated by the Court of Inquiry at the "highest level" and appropriate action would be taken. Official sources said defence minister Rajnath Singh and Army Chief Gen. M.M. Naravane had been briefed about the incident.
Army officials said the operation in Mon district that borders Myanmar was carried out based on credible intelligence inputs about the likely movement of insurgents in the area.
In Nagaland, Local Konyak civil society leaders, who also claimed 16 deaths, said that at least nine villagers were also injured in the second incident of firing. The injured and the dead were shifted to the headquarters of Mon district.
Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio, who was in New Delhi, announced a high-level Special Investigation Team probe into the incident, saying: “The unfortunate incident leading to the killing of civilians at Oting is highly condemnable. Condolences to the bereaved families and speedy recovery of those injured. High-level SIT will investigate and justice delivered as per the law of the land. Appeal for peace from all sections.”
Union home minister Amit Shah also tweeted: “Anguished over an unfortunate incident in Nagaland’s Oting, Mon. I express my deepest condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives. A high-level SIT constituted by the state govt will thoroughly probe this incident to ensure justice to the bereaved families.”
Meanwhile, the Eastern Nagaland People’s Organisation (ENPO), the apex body of six Naga tribes of five districts, including Mon, has condemned the “barbaric act”. The ENPO is stated to have requested all its six (Konyak, Khiamniungan, Phom, Sangtam, Yimkhiung and Chang) tribes to abstain from participating in the ongoing Hornbill Festival with immediate effect till the funeral rites of the deceased are completed, and directed them to hoist black flags at their morungs (traditional huts) at the main festival site -- the Naga heritage village Kisama.
The Konyak Union Kohima has already announced that it would abstain from any further participation at the ongoing festival citing “atrocities” by the security forces at Oting village.
Though it was not announced officially, sources in Kohima said that after the incident, the famous Hornbill festival in Kohima has been shut down.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Sunday attacked the Centre over the killing of civilians in the anti-insurgency operation, saying it must give a “real reply” as to what the home ministry was doing when “neither civilians nor security personnel are safe in our own land”.
Mr 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?”
Assam MP Gaurav Gogoi also reacted to the incident, and tweeted: “I request that the truth behind the shootings should come out sooner rather than later.”
Meghalaya CM Conrad Sangma also condemned the incident and said: “Deeply saddened by the unfortunate loss of lives at the firing incident in Nagaland’s Oting. My deepest condolences to the bereaved families. I pray for speedy recovery of those injured and peace to be restored.”