Police in India’s north-eastern Assam state have arrested 16 people after two tourists were allegedly lynched, after rumours they were child kidnappers circulated on social media.
Monday’s arrests followed violent state-wide protests against the killings of audio engineer Niltopal Das, 29 and digital artist Abijeet Nath, 30, late Friday evening in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district, 117 miles from the state capital Dispur.
Both had gone to a picnic spot in the area to visit a waterfall and were viciously attacked on their return by a mob that accused them of being "child lifters".
Officials said the attack was prompted by rumours spread via telephone calls and WhatsApp messages that the two were fleeing in their black SUV with a kidnapped child.
A video of the attack went viral over the weekend, in which one of the two victims is seen pleading for his life, telling the mob that he was innocent.
“Don’t kill me, please don’t beat me… please let me go… believe me I am speaking the truth” were Mr Das’ last words before he was kicked beaten by the mob with bamboo sticks and hanged from a nearby tree. His companion was similarly killed.
A local television journalist, a friend of one of the two men killed, says that not only did the attackers film one of them begging for mercy but also posted them on Facebook, claiming responsibility for the murders.
Rumours of children being kidnapped and killed, supposedly for their body parts, over Facebook and WhatsApp have recently gathered momentum across India. The result has been at least six people killed by vigilante mobs in as many weeks.
In some instances police said doctored video messages, depicting children being snatched from streets had been circulated, resulting in local mobs beating up and killing anyone who looked unfamiliar or could speak the local language or dialect.
Local reports of several such killings have also suggested that these were executed to settle scores by the victims’ business, social or even political rivals.
Meanwhile, the Assam provincial government declared that it had set up "dedicated" control rooms to monitor rumours on social media and counter those seeking to spread fake news with the aim of fostering panic.
The state Director General of Police Kuladar Saikia said that some people associated with the lynching had been identified, but were in hiding. “We are looking for them” he added.
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