Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mutinous Bangladeshi Border Guards Agree to Surrender

Photo: Bangladesh border gaurds on shooting spree protesting military officers hegemony on them a day after Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina attend a ceremony and decorates a BDR officer

EMILY WAX

DISGRUNTLED BORDER guards who went on a shooting spree against their superiors in the crowded Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka on Wednesday agreed to surrender after the government promised amnesty, officials said. At least one person was killed in the crossfire and nearly a dozen were injured, police said.

The firefight began about 10 a.m. Bangladeshi time when mutinous members of the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles -- also known as the BDR -- took an unknown number of hostages inside their headquarters. It went on throughout the day. The campus also includes a school where children were trapped inside, according to media reports. There were also concerns for people at a nearby shopping center reportedly seized by the rebel troops.

The mutiny was the first crisis for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's fragile government, which came to power after a peaceful election in late December, succeeding a military-backed interim government.

The agreement was reached at a meeting between Hasina and 15 rebel soldiers at her residence. Soon afterward, independent television channels showed children reunited with weeping parents.

"The prime minister has announced amnesty for those involved in the trouble. We now hope to lay down our arms and go back to barracks," Mohammed Towhid, a spokesman for the mutineers, told reporters after the meeting.

Hasina, who also served as the country's prime minister from 1996 to 2001, met senior BDR officers Tuesday at an annual parade, and urged the group's troops to become "more disciplined and remain ever ready to guard the country's frontiers."

On Wednesday, hundreds of the 42,000 Bangladesh Rifles forces gathered inside their headquarters for an annual conference. The conflict apparently erupted over pay issues. Troops chanted slogans for better salaries and living conditions, Bangladeshi media reported.

One guard told reporters during the crisis that the soldiers are fighting for their rights "but do not want to hurt civilians because the common man is the asset of the nation." His comments were interrupted by the sound of gunshots. At one point, the soldier yelled at his fellow guards to cease firing, according to televised reports.

The army moved in to try and stop the unrest, but heavy fighting unfolded through the day.

"Because of our history of political problems, no one was sure if this would end quickly," said Manash Ghosh, a Bangladeshi journalist and eyewitness at the scene. "Parents were very terrified. It wasn't a good day for our country."

A rickshaw puller was killed and three other bystanders were wounded in the crossfire, police said. Flames billowed from the complex and military helicopters hovered overhead as members of a special force called the Rapid Action Battalion fanned out among the congested streets surrounding the building, television broadcasts showed.

Bangladesh is an impoverished South Asian country of more than 140 million that won independence from Pakistan in 1971. The country has a history of both political instability, including coups and counter-coups, and also natural disasters such as cyclones and flooding.

In January 2007, violent street clashes between members of rival parties prompted the army-backed caretaker government to declare an emergency. That government promised to act against corruption and attempted to encourage a third party. But human rights groups said it also arrested people arbitrarily.

"The key problem is partly low pays and benefits, but more importantly the fact that command and control of the paramilitary force is in the hands of the army. Over the years this may have led to a problem of 'we versus they,' " said Iftekhar Zaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh, a government watchdog group.

"It is hard and indeed too early to comment about its implication for stability of the country, but mutiny in a paramilitary force is definitely not a good news. If it is not effectively addressed -- perhaps by direct involvement of the prime minister -- it can turn out to be highly destabilizing." #

Emily Wax is Washington Post’s New Delhi bureau First published in the Washington Post, February 25, 2009; 10:33 AM