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Bangladesh PM warns mutineers of tough action

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina warned thousands of mutinous border guards today to surrender immediately or face "tough action" as their revolt spread outside the capital Dhaka. See map

world Updated: Feb 26, 2009 18:10 IST
Shafiq Alam
Shafiq Alam

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina warned thousands of mutinous border guards on Thursday to surrender immediately or face "tough action" as their revolt spread outside the capital Dhaka.

In a televised address to the nation, Sheikh Hasina, who took office less than two months ago, told the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) guards they were on a "suicidal route" with an uprising that officials say may have already cost 50 lives.

"Just give up your arms and return to barracks right now," she said.

"Don't take the suicidal route. Don't compel me to take tough action. We are aware of your problems. Please help us."

Her message came as the mutiny, which began early Wednesday at the Rifles headquarters in Dhaka, spread to a number of other BDR posts outside the capital.

Police chiefs across the poor and chronically unstable South Asian nation said rank-and-file BDR members had revolted in 15 border districts -- roughly a quarter of the zones where border security forces are stationed.

"They are firing indiscriminately," said one of the police chiefs, from the northeastern Moulivibazar district. "Their commanding officer told me that he has fled the camp."

Police chief Kamrul Ahsan, from the southeastern town of Satkania, reported "heavy fighting" at a BDR training centre.

In an effort to stem any further spread, the Bangladesh telecoms authority ordered all the country's six mobile operators to shut down their networks.

In Dhaka, the initial mutiny had appeared to be petering out following the earlier offer of an amnesty, but fresh, heavy gunfire erupted on Thursday and sent thousands of people around the BDR headquarters running for cover.

At the same time, the mutineers set free more than a dozen women they had been holding hostage and Home Minister Sahara Khatun told a local television station some guards were surrendering their arms following the prime minister's address.

Officials said tensions in the BDR had been simmering for months but exploded into violence when senior officers dismissed appeals for more pay, subsidised food and holidays.

Sheikh Hasina had made her amnesty offer on Wednesday and also promised to address complaints over low pay and working conditions.

Deputy law minister Kamrul Islam said the situation remained tense around the BDR headquarters, where at least 50 officers held hostage were feared dead.

So far, a total of 11 people have been confirmed killed and dozens more wounded.

One rebel guard said he doubted a surrender would take place smoothly.

"They told us to surrender arms. But we have reports that army troops have attacked our camps outside the capital. We want peace but not bloodshed," the guard told AFP.

The unrest is the first major crisis to face Sheikh Hasina since she took office after a landslide election victory that ended two years of army-backed rule.

"Keep the peace and stay patient for the sake of the nation. I urge everyone to be patient. I seek cooperation of all," she said in her televised address.

The stand-off highlights the frustrations felt by many in the impoverished nation, which suffers from high food prices, a slowing economy and rampant corruption within the ruling classes.

Bangladesh has had a history of political violence, coups and counter-coups since winning independence from Pakistan in 1971.

The country was run by a military dictator from 1982 to 1990, before democracy was restored in 1991. In January 2007 the army again stepped in, cancelled elections and declared a state of emergency following months of political unrest.

Democracy was only restored with elections last December.

First Published: Feb 26, 2009 14:33 IST