Hasina offers talks as troopers mutiny in Bangladesh

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asked rebellious Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) troopers to surrender and pledged to talk to them after several hours of fierce battles with the army in the heart of Dhaka.

world Updated: Feb 25, 2009 15:36 IST

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Wednesday asked rebellious Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) troopers to surrender and pledged to talk to them after several hours of fierce battles with the army in the heart of Dhaka reportedly left four people dead and many injured.

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.

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.

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.

Bangladesh authorities appealed to the mutineers over hand-held loudhailers to give up their violent protest and to return to the barracks without delay.

"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.

Home Minister Sahara Khatun was rushed to the BDR headquarters to talk to the troopers, whose main task is to guard Bangladesh's winding border with India and Myanmar. The BDR is 67,000 strong.

But sporadic gunshots continued, indicating that the BDR personnel were defiant.

Thousands of rounds of gunshots and mortar firing were heard in Dhaka since the mutiny erupted around 7.45 am. 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 bandana 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".

The revolt came a day after Hasina visited the BDR head office and addressed its personnel after a ceremonial parade.

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.

First Published: Feb 25, 2009 15:35 IST