Violence Breaks Out Along Bangladesh's Frontiers

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 26, 2009

NEW DELHI, Feb. 26 -- Gunfire erupted along Bangladesh's porous border early Thursday as negotiations with disgruntled border guards who had gone on a shooting rampage against their superiors the day before in the country's capital turned "tense," according to a government spokesman.

The clashes in Dhaka ended late Wednesday after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina offered amnesty and the rebels began to surrender their weapons to the home minister. But by morning, there were reports that the unrest was spreading to several border posts and towns.

On Wednesday, at least 49 people were killed and more than 20 injured when the mutinous soldiers rose up against senior officers in their headquarters and trapped children inside a school nearby, Mohammad Quamrul Islam, state minister for law and parliamentary affairs, told reporters in televised sessions.

The border guards were apparently seeking higher pay and better living conditions. They were also upset with the military structure of the guards, saying they needed better treatment from their army commanders.

The dead included the director general of the Bangladesh Rifles and 12 senior commanders, police said. Negotiations with the unit that rebelled Wednesday are continuing and the situation is tense, government officials said.

The rising number of dead will test Hasina's fragile government, which came to power after a peaceful election in late December, succeeding a military-backed interim government. Its challenge will be to answer the grievances of the border forces without angering the military leadership, analysts said.

The Bangladesh Rifles, or BDR, has about 45,000 men stationed at 64 camps across the South Asian country. BBC News said there were unconfirmed reports of gunfire in the main port city of Chittagong; at Feni, near the eastern border with India; in Rajshahi in the northwest; and in Sylhet in the north.

The Wednesday firefight in Dhaka began about 10 a.m. when mutinous members of the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles took an unknown number of their senior officers hostage inside their headquarters. The campus includes a school where children were trapped, according to media reports. There were also concerns about people at a nearby shopping center reportedly seized by the rebel troops.

The surrender agreement was reached at a meeting between Hasina and 15 top 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. Towhid said the rebels would surrender Thursday after Hasina examined their demands.

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

On Wednesday, hundreds of the troops gathered inside their headquarters for an annual conference. Troops chanted slogans for better salaries and living conditions, Bangladeshi media reported.

One guard told reporters that soldiers were fighting for their rights but did "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, television footage showed.

Bangladesh is an impoverished country of more than 153 million that won independence from Pakistan in 1971. It has a history of political instability, including more than 22 coups and countercoups. Its low-lying land has also made it the victim of natural disasters.

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