Hasina holds talks with mutinous troopers (Fourth Lead)

February 25th, 2009 - 7:12 pm ICT by IANS  

Dhaka, Feb 25 (IANS) Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government faced its first serious crisis Wednesday when a mutiny by Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) troopers left at least four people dead and scores injured in the heart of the capital city.
The troopers said that Major General Shakil Ahmed, director general of BDR, was unhurt inside the BDR headquarters, putting to rest rumours that he had been killed.

“It was a lie that he was injured. We did not hurt him at all,” a BDR trooper told a private television station.

“The BDR DG was kept hostage inside and he was safe. We took him hostage after we came under attack.”

After a half-a-day-long mayhem at the BDR headquarters at Peelkhana, a 14-member team of troopers went to meet the prime minister at her official residence, Jamuna. But they demanded amnesty for the rebels before a ceasfire could be affected.

They went with state minister Jahangir Kabir Nanak and parliament whip Mirza Azam shortly after 3.45 p.m.

The rebellious troopers claimed that there were over 20,000 of them at the headquarters and they refused to lay down arms.

They also demanded that they would talk to none other than the prime minister and Home Minister Sahara Khatun.

Poor pay packets and working conditions appeared to be the cause of the rebellion.

On arrival at Hasina’s residence, the BDR troopers demanded the army cordon be withdrawn before talks were held.

“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,” an unidentified trooper, part of the delegation, was quoted by Star Online as saying.

Angry troopers spoke in terms of a “war”.

“We have no problem to surrender our arms. But we won’t turn ourselves in until our demands are met, and this war will continue.”

BDR, which guards over 4,400 km long border with India and Myanmar, is headed by an army general.

Reports emanating from Dhaka said attempts by army and air force personnel to enter the the BDR headquarters were thwarted by rebel soldiers sporting yellow bandanas and guarding all the gates.

Significantly, there was no inkling of the storm brewing as the prime minister had only a day earlier taken salute at a ceremonial parade and addressed officers and men at the BDR headquarters.

Trouble broke out at 7.45 a.m. as the national capital heard gun and mortar shots.

Huge columns of black smoke rose from the BDR complex in the heart of the capital, with some reports saying there had been an unspecified number of casualties. One of the dead was said to be an innocent rickshaw puller on a Dhaka street.

“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, he answered but did not speak, and the journalist could hear screams.

Soldiers who tried to storm the BDR headquarters, scene of the fighting, were thwarted by the protesting paramilitary personnel who guarded all the gates of the complex, said residents who swarmed the streets after hearing about the battle.

The cause of the rebellion was unclear but some government sources said the trouble erupted during a meeting of the BDR personnel and its officers over frequent transfers and poor salaries.

“Stop firing and go back to barracks in the greater interest of the country and the image of the BDR,” the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military’s public-relations outfit, said.

Thousands of rounds of gunshots and mortar firing were heard in Dhaka since the mutiny erupted around 7.45 a.m. At least four army officers have been killed and dozens are held hostage, claimed one protester.

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.

Hundreds of BDR personnel wearing red bandanas and partly covering their faces with yellow clothes crowded the gates, screaming that they had many grievances.

Army helicopters also fired shots into the BDR compound.

According to Bangladesh television, 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 United News of Bangladesh (UNB) quoted Hasina as saying that she was “ready to listen to all their complaints and problems”.

Even as the authorities warned of “stern action” if the BDR troopers did not give up, reinforcements of soldiers in battle fatigues and the police laid a siege to the BDR complex.

The unrest emptied large parts of otherwise perennially crowded city. All the markets close to the BDR complex remained closed. Some relatives of BDR officers and soldiers were seen crying.

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