Dhaka: Mutinies by members of the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) have broken out in various towns around the country even as BDR violence in the capital Dhaka was being contained, police and witnesses said on Thursday.
Nearly 50 people were killed in Dhaka as BDR troops fought among themselves on Wednesday after shooting began in their headquarters over a pay dispute and other issues, a government minister said on Thursday.
The mutinous soldiers in Dhaka were laying down their arms on Thursday after accepting an offer of amnesty 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.
“Fighting is raging outside the BDR camp, with troops coming on the street holding up guns and shooting,” said a Reuters witness in Sylhet, in the northeast of the country.
There were no immediate reports of casualties.
The turmoil underscores the challenges facing prime minister Sheikh Hasina.
Hasina won parliamentary elections in December that returned the impoverished country to democracy after nearly two years of army-backed emergency rule, and the incident is a blow to her efforts to attract foreign investment and convince foreign aid donors the country is on a path to stability.
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 to be politically motivated.
“Nearly 50 people have been killed in sporadic fighting in the headquarters of the Bangladesh Rifles,” Mohammad Quamrul Islam, state minister for law and parliamentary affairs, told reporters early on Thursday, describing the Dhaka fighting.
He said all weapons would likely be surrendered in the coming hours. But officials waiting outside the BDR headquarters on Thursday morning said the process has been slow.
Television channels showed troops handing over Chinese-made automatic rifles, bullets and grenades to Home Minister Sahara Khatun, who visited the headquarters after talks with the rebels.
“The surrender of all the weapons by the rebels may take hours more,” a police officer said, requesting not to be identified. “The situation inside (the BDR complex) is calm but tense.”
Officials said 50 stranded women and children had been evacuated from the headquarters. Agriculture Minister Begum Motia Chowdhury entered on Thursday morning, and she would try to bring out families of army officers and soldiers still stranded there, officials said.
They gave no estimates on how many such people might still be in the sprawling complex, which usually houses 2,000 troops.
No gunfire had been heard in the early hours of Thursday. In most of the capital people were carrying on their daily business as usual.
The mutiny erupted on Wednesday when shooting broke out after enlisted men met officers to discuss a row over pay and benefits and their command structure. They want commanders appointed from the paramilitary, not the army as is now the case.
No breakdown of the casualties was available immediately. There has been speculation by the media and security sources that BDR chief Major-General Shakil Ahmed was among those killed, but there was no confirmation.
The government had responded on Wednesday by sending troops to the BDR complex, and Home Minister Sahara Khatun held talks with the mutineers’ leaders to defuse the situation, after which the rebels agreed to lay down their weapons.
The shooting on Wednesday spilled onto the streets in Dhaka, killing three civilians and wounding several others, witnesses earlier said. Flames rose from the BDR complex and loud explosions were heard.
It was not immediately clear how many civilians were among the final Dhaka death toll.
Hasina met some of the BDR mutineers on Wednesday in a bid to end the stand-off.
Government minister Jahangir Kabir Nanak said Hasina offered an amnesty to those involved during an hour-long meeting at her residence. One BDR officer said the rebels agreed to surrender their weapons after Hasina promised to meet the group’s demands.
The prime minister summoned most members of her cabinet to an emergency meeting on Thursday morning to discuss the mutiny and review the latest situation, a government official said.
Analysts said the mutinies pose a major problem for Hasina in keeping together the powerful defence forces, who 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.
Others said further unrest would adversely affect the country’s political stability and efforts to attract investment.
The BDR, whose main duty is guarding the country’s borders, is often called in to back up the army and police in meeting other defence and security requirements.
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.