Tragic ambush claims three more lives in Manipur’s Kangpokpi

Latest killing in Manipur. (The image includes graphics and has been blurred.) (Photo: Courtesy of ITLF spokesperson)

Three men belonging to the Kuki-Zo tribe were ambushed and killed between the villages of Ireng and Karam Vaiphei in Kanggui area of Kangpokpi district on September 12 morning.

Satneo Tuboi, 41, of K. Ponlen, Ngamminlun Lhouvum, 30, of K. Ponlen, Ngamminlun Kipgen, 31, of Lhangkichoi were travelling to meet their families who were living at relief camps in Motbung, Saparmeina and Kangpokpi according to the police.

Kangpokpi’s additional superintendent of police Tholu Rocky told media that, “The three Kuki persons, who were going in a vehicle, were waylaid by armed miscreants and shot dead. Contrary to some reports, there was no gunfight. We have started investigations to nab those responsible. The bodies have been sent for post-mortem.”

Whereas the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF) blame the Meitei militants behind the attack. “The Kuki-Zo tribals have steadfastly tried to maintain peace after the initial bout of violence in May, but the unending attacks and arson are testing us to the limit,” stated Ginza Vualzong, the spokesperson of the ITLF in a press statement released the same day.

Though the timing of the attack is said to be estimated around 8 in the morning, the images clicked by a phone of a Meitei named Kishan Soram confirms the date, but shows the time on the phone clicked image as 6:54 a.m. A man in uniform holding a gun is partially seen in the picture.

Some Christians debate the presence of a Meitei immediately after the attack as suspicious.

ITLF confirmed that Kipgen - one of the victims - was a local musician and the general secretary of Thadou Artiste Association, while Tuboi and Lhouvum were farmers.

Over the course of the past week, the three victims had been serving as village volunteers to watch over their villages, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“As they reached a location known as Thumkhong Lairembi, a series of gunshots erupted from the nearby hillside. It appears that the attackers descended from the hills onto the road, targeting the vehicle's windows. The bullets were forceful enough to pierce the vehicle, and the victims were unarmed during the attack. Remarkably, the car bore witness to over 40 bullet marks,” he said.

Eyewitnesses reported seeing nearly two dozen individuals clad in military attire moving through the jungle near the hills along the road on Monday night. Initially mistaken for security personnel, it now seems these armed individuals may have been concealed in the jungle, said the official. When the firing commenced, one of the men attempted to flee but was tragically shot outside the Maruti Gypsy car. The lifeless bodies of the other two men were discovered inside the vehicle. The official suggested that the victims couldn't make a speedy getaway due to the wet and slippery conditions on the unpaved road.

Papao Sitlhog, head of Ponlen village, the hometown of the deceased, presented a differing account. He stated, "According to some villagers who witnessed the firing, there were approximately nine assailants who targeted the Maruti Gypsy car. During the incident, one of the men, Lhouvum, was being transported to the district hospital. After dropping him off, the other two were en route to meet their families at the relief camp. Our village, with roughly 50 adult residents, is Kuki-dominated. Lhouvum fell ill after spending nights outdoors safeguarding the village. He was asleep in the back seat of the car when the armed assailants opened fire."

Security forces in the area have initiated combing operations in pursuit of the suspects.

Over the past 10 days, Manipur has witnessed a further escalation in the ongoing unrest, with 11 reported fatalities besides the recent killings and 83 individuals said to have sustained injuries. This conflict, spanning four months, revolves around an ethnic and religious divide between the Hindu-majority Meitei community and the Christian minority Kuki-Zo tribal community. Since May 3, the violence has claimed over 200 lives, displacing more than 70,000 people and resulting in the destruction of nearly 400 churches, 7,000 houses and over 100 villages.