Bangladeshi Border Guards End Mutiny

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 27, 2009

NEW DELHI, Feb. 26 -- Bangladeshi border guards on Thursday ended their two-day mutiny by surrendering their weapons and freeing their hostages, government officials said.

The revolt, which left nearly 50 people dead, began in the capital, Dhaka, but later spread across the country with rank-and-file soldiers seizing control of barracks in at least 12 towns and cities, testing the fragile hold of the nation's new government.

Government negotiator Mahbub Ara Gini told reporters that "all the mutinous border guards have surrendered their weapons."

In a televised lunch-hour address to the nation, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had threatened to take tough action against the mutineers unless they surrendered immediately. She called on the border guards in the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles -- also known as the BDR -- to abandon what she called their "suicidal action."

"Lay down your guns immediately and go back to barracks," she said. In a show of force, the government sent tanks into the capital, where the mutiny began Wednesday morning.

"Do not force me to take tough actions or push my patience," said Hasina, who late Wednesday had offered the border guards a general amnesty and promised to look into their grievances, largely over pay, living conditions and what they say is poor treatment from their army commanders.

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

Schools in the surrounding area were closed Thursday. Mobile phone service was suspended across the country, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission said, in a bid to stop the rebellion from spreading.

The dead apparently included the director-general of the BDR and 12 senior commanders, police said. Negotiations with the unit that rebelled Wednesday were thought to be over as of Wednesday night but continued into Thursday.

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

Among the reasons for the outburst was that members of the BDR have been unable to rise beyond the rank of captain, said Sreeradha Datta of India's Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses. The higher echelons are reserved for army officers.

"The army has a higher status. It has the benefits of financial gains and ration distribution. The BDR members are treated like second-class citizens. So it is only rational that they decided to vehemently revolt," said Datta, who has studied the Bangladeshi military. "Hasina's regime is barely a month old, and she is finding her feet at the moment. I think to remedy the situation, the situation can only be tackled head-on. The government has to look into the grievances and negotiate with the rebels. In the best case, the army will team up with the government to restore peace, law, order."

The BDR has about 45,000 men stationed at 64 camps across the South Asian country.

The Wednesday firefight in Dhaka began about 10 a.m. when members of the BDR took an unknown number of their senior officers hostage inside their headquarters. The surrender agreement was reached at a meeting between Hasina and 15 top rebel soldiers at her residence. Independent television channels showed weeping parents and relatives pleading on television for their relatives to be released.

This was the first time the border guards had mutinied, despite Bangladesh's turbulent history of revolts and counter-revolts. The border guards defend against smuggling and cross-border crime; in times of war, they back up the army. The force came into existence shortly after the country won its independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Special correspondent Ria Sen contributed to this report.

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