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Bangladesh troop mutinies go beyond Dhaka

Dhaka, February 26, 2009

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina urged calm on Thursday as paramilitary troops fired weapons and took to the streets of towns around the country, even as violence in Dhaka was being contained.

The main duty of the mutinous Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) is guarding the country's borders, but often they back up the army and police in meeting other defence and security requirements.

"The Prime Minister has urged all people to remain calm and not to indulge in violence," said Mohiuddin Khan Alaamgir, one of the advisers to Hasina who along with ministers attended an emergency meeting with her.

Earlier officials said nearly 50 people died in Wednesday fighting at the BDR Dhaka headquarters, a blow to hopes Hasina's government, which took office only last month, could bring stability that would attract investors and boost development.

Bangladesh, home to more than 140 million people, has had several military coups since independence in 1971, but this week's mutinies do not appear politically motivated.

Traditionally the BDR are commanded by officers from the army. Demands by some BDR troops to draw commanders from their own ranks, and for better pay and benefits, sparked the shooting among BDR members on Wednesday, officials said.

Witnesses said police recovered the bodies of six BDR officers near the Dhaka headquarters on Thursday. On Wednesday police found two officers dead.

The mutinous soldiers in Dhaka were slowly laying down their arms on Thursday after accepting an amnesty offer from the government, but outside the capital there were shooting incidents involving BDR troops in more than a dozen towns, local police officials told Reuters reporters.

A Reuters witness in Sylhet in the northeast said BDR troops were "coming on the street holding up guns and shooting".

BDR members barricaded a highway linking two districts in the southern region while they took over camps from army commanders at several places, local officials said.

There were no immediate reports of casualties in the actions.

The turmoil underscores the challenges facing Prime Minister Hasina, who won parliamentary elections in December that returned Bangladesh to democracy after nearly two years of army-backed emergency rule.

The incidents are a blow to her efforts to attract foreign investment and convince foreign aid donors that Bangladesh, where around 40 percent of the populace is below the poverty line, is on a path to stability.

Analysts said the mutinies also pose a major challenge for Hasina in keeping together the powerful defence forces -- which have often intervened in the country's politics -- and tackle their grievances without risking further discord.

"This poses a huge challenge for the prime minister and her government, who need to be tactful in trying to resolve it," said retired Major General Azizur Rahman, a former BDR chief.

No gunfire had been heard in Dhaka on Thursday morning. In most of the capital people were carrying on their daily business as usual.

The shooting on Wednesday had spilled onto Dhaka's streets, killing three civilians and wounding several others. It was not immediately clear how many civilians were among the final Dhaka death toll.

The mutiny broke out only a day after Hasina met senior BDR officers at an annual parade and told them her government would do its best to modernise the paramilitary forces.

"The surrender of all the weapons by the rebels may take hours more," a police officer in Dhaka said, requesting not to be identified. "The situation inside (the BDR complex) is calm but tense," he added. The complex usually houses 2,000 troops. - Reuters




Tags: Dhaka | Hasina | Bangladesh Rifles | mutiny |

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