Church and human rights groups condemned the reported killing by security forces of 13 civilians in the northeastern Indian state of Nagaland on Sunday.
The soldiers reportedly fired on a truck and later shoot at a crowd that gathered to protest the attack.
The incident has led to fresh demand for the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA, that grants special powers to the Indian Armed Forces to maintain public order in “disturbed areas.”
“It is sad that innocent people are killed by the security personnel who are there to protect them,” said Father Felix Anthony of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland’s northern neighboring state, in a report by Matters India.
The non-government Northeast Peace Forum said the “bizarre” incident involved “innocent laborers” who lost their lives while returning home to the village of Oting from a coal mine.
The victims were members of Konyak, one of the major Naga ethnic groups.
The army later said that one of its soldiers died during the confrontation and several others were wounded.
“While the Army claims that they had specific intelligence information on the underground movement, they are at crossroads to explain the unfortunate shooting leading to innocent civilians dying,” said Allen Brooks, spokesperson of the Northeast Peace Forum.
“With Christmas just round the corner, this incident has definitely dampened the spirits of everyone as the state moans this terrible loss of human life,” Brooks told Matters India.
Father Anthony said the “brutal incident” added to “the long list of heinous human rights violations committed by the security forces.”
The AFSPA, which many condemn as draconian, was first passed in 1958 to quell the secessionist forces active in the Naga Hills, then part of Assam. It was later extended to other states.
India’s Home Minister Amit Shah expressed his regret over the incident and said the state probe would “ensure justice to the bereaved families.”
Nagaland state is run by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in an alliance with a more powerful regional party.
The state government issued a statement late Sunday and announced an initial compensation of about US$6,600 each for the families of the dead civilians.
It said that state had used helicopters to evacuate four of the nine injured civilians from the remote Mon district to Dimapur, close to the regional capital, for medical treatment.
Nagaland and other states in northeast India, linked to the rest of the country by a narrow land corridor, has seen decades of unrest among ethnic and separatist groups.
The region is home to dozens of tribal groups and small guerrilla armies whose demands range from greater autonomy to secession from India.
Over the years insurgency has waned, with many groups striking deals with New Delhi for more powers, but a large Indian garrison remains stationed in the region. – with reports from Matters India and Agence France Presse