/ 2 March 2009

Bangladesh army hunts mutineers after deadly revolt

Troops fanned out across Bangladesh on Monday to hunt 1 000 fugitive soldiers blamed for a revolt by border guards that left 78 dead and scores more missing, mainly army officers.

The bloodshed has left Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who took office just more than two months ago, facing a major crisis that analysts say could bring further instability to the impoverished South Asian nation.

Hasina has ordered the army to join the search for the mutineers, and has also sought help from the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and British police.

“We have given the rebels who fled 24 hours to surrender and that expired at 4pm on Sunday, so I have summoned the army and other forces to hunt them,” the prime minister told Parliament late on Sunday.

Hasina said arrest warrants had been issued for 1 000 mutineers, and accomplices “who organised cars, boats to help [the mutineers] flee” were also being sought.

The soldiers fled the Dhaka headquarters of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) on Thursday, apparently dressed as civilians, after a 33-hour mutiny that turned the capital into a battle zone.

They left behind gruesome scenes with dozens of bodies, many mutilated by bayonets, dumped in mass graves. About 70 senior army officers are still missing.

An armed forces spokesperson said “Operation Rebel Hunt” was under way to catch the 1 000 mutineers still at large, with 668 already arrested.

Hasina said she had contacted US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher and would also approach Britain’s Scotland Yard for help in the case, which has left the country reeling.

“I have had discussions with Richard Boucher. I told him I want FBI assistance in the probe,” the prime minister said.

“I’d also like Scotland Yard to help us, and I have already sought UN support.”

The revolt reportedly escalated from a dispute over pay and conditions in the BDR force, which is tasked with guarding Bangladesh’s long and porous border with India.

It ended after Hasina met a group of BDR troops and threatened to use force if they did not surrender. Six of those who met the prime minister are on the wanted list for the killing spree.

The government, which took power in January after two years of army rule, has said it will set up a special tribunal to try those behind the killings, with some facing execution by hanging.

The prime minister (61) initially declared an amnesty for those who surrendered, but later said those who committed murder would be punished.

Most of the 78 bodies recovered were found in graves concealed under leaves and loose dirt in the BDR compound. The force’s chief and his wife were among the dead.

Divers pulled some bodies from underground sewers and an operation was under way to flush out the compound’s drainage system to check for further corpses.

The violence was extreme even in a country whose short history is steeped in political bloodshed, coups and counter-coups since the brutal 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.

Hasina’s own family was decimated in a 1975 coup, with her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s first head of state, killed along with his wife and three sons. Hasina and her sister were out of the country at the time. — AFP