Bangladesh’s troopers end violent revolt, four dead (Roundup)

February 25th, 2009 - 9:38 pm ICT by IANS  

Dhaka/Kolkata, Feb 25 (IANS) Thousands of Bangladesh border guards ended a revolt over poor working conditions and agreed to return to the barracks Wednesday after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced an amnesty, ending several hours of fierce fighting with the army in the heart of Dhaka that reportedly left at least four people dead and the country shaken.
Gunbattles raged through much of the day in the heart of the capital as the army tried to storm the headquarters of the 67,000-strong Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) after its troopers mutinied demanding better pay and an end to frequent transfers, throwing up the first major challenge to the month-old government of Sheikh Hasina.

The BDR headquarters and the area around it on Dhaka’s outskirts turned into a war zone as the troopers took on the better equipped army soldiers who encircled the complex, exchanging gun and mortar fire in the capital.

Thick smoke billowed and military helicopters hovered overhead, firing shots into the compound. Thousands of rounds of gunshots and mortar firing were heard.

At least four army officers deputed to the BDR were killed, claimed one protester. There were also reports that a rickshaw puller had been killed by a stray bullet.

Some officials believe the death toll could be much higher as the soldiers were seen firing weapons in all directions. A fire also raged at the BDR headquarters earlier in the day.

According to a television channel, heavy weapons like cannons were used to damage some buildings. Soldiers driving armoured vehicles were shooting to prevent the Rapid Action Battalion and the army from overwhelming them. The army quickly deployed anti-tank weapons outside the BDR headquarters.

The crisis that began at 7.30 a.m. continued till late in the evening when Hasina announced amnesty for the mutinous troopers and they agreed to return to the barracks, reported the Daily Star Online.

After a 14-member BDR team met the prime minister at her residence, BDR Deputy Assistant Director Touhid told reporters that they would surrender arms and go back to their barracks. “We had talks with the prime minister and we agreed to return to barracks,” he was quoted as saying.

Rebellious troopers claimed there were over 20,000 of them at the BDR headquarters. At one time, they declared that they were ready to take on the army.

“We want to tell them that we need freedom. Everybody knows how miserably we live. We cannot work independently. We don’t have a department of our own,” a trooper who was part of the delegation that met the prime minister said.

BDR, which guards over 4,400 km long border with India and Myanmar, is headed by an army general. The BDR personnel have always resented the army dominance.

The troopers said Major General Shakil Ahmed, director general of BDR, was unhurt, putting to rest rumours that he had been killed.

But before the revolt ended, there were many panicky moments.

“We are under siege, try to save us!” pleaded a BDR official to a journalist before hanging up. When another journalist called another BDR official at the headquarters, which was ringed by armed and masked BDR personnel, he did not speak, and the journalist could hear screams.

Sources inside the headquarters said the firing began in the morning when senior officers, mostly drawn from the army, were at an annual conference in which the soldiers were allowed to vent their grievances, media reports said.

But instead of just complaining, the enlisted men shouted at the army officers and held them hostage. Several hundred troopers then took control of the artillery and other heavy weapons inside the compound.

There was no inkling of the storm brewing. Only a day earlier, the prime minister had taken salute at a ceremonial parade and addressed officers and men at the BDR headquarters in Pilkhana.

An apprehensive India put its frontier guards on maximum alert along its 4,095 km border with Bangladesh.

An Indian Border Security Force (BSF) official said troops were put on high alert and additional reinforcements rushed to sensitive border areas along the northeastern states of Tripura and Assam.

“A high alert was sounded with senior officials asked to station themselves in the border outposts,” A.K. Singh, a BSF spokesperson said.

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