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Bangladesh paramilitary surrenders after deadly uprising

At least 11 have died in fighting between rival security groups, a major setback for a country that just transitioned to civilian rule.

February 27, 2009|Mark Magnier and Nurul Alam

NEW DELHI AND CHITTAGONG, BANGLADESH — Mutinous Bangladeshi border guards surrendered Thursday after two days of protests over pay and status that resulted in at least 18 deaths.

The dispute reportedly erupted Wednesday inside the Dhaka headquarters of the Bangladesh Rifles paramilitary force during a meeting between junior members and their superiors, who are with the nation's army.

The end of the uprising and release of dozens of hostages came after tanks rolled through the capital and Prime Minister Sheik Hasina Wajed warned that Rifles members, who also guard the nation's airports, must return to their barracks and surrender their weapons or face unspecified consequences.

"Do not force me to take tough actions or push my patience beyond tolerable limits," she said in a national broadcast, in a bid to prevent her 2-month-old government from imploding. "Give democracy and the economy a chance to develop."

Analysts said the uprising was a significant setback for a nation that had held a relatively fair election in late December, resulting in a peaceful transition to civilian rule after years of military government.

The official death toll of 18 included eight bodies found outside the Rifles headquarters, amid earlier reports that as many as 50 civilians and security personnel in total had been killed. As the search for additional bodies continued, among those still unaccounted for was the guards' commander, Maj. Gen. Shakil Ahmed, who eyewitnesses said was killed early in the conflict.

Bangladesh, an impoverished Muslim-majority nation with a population of 153 million, has a history of coups and of deep-seated corruption. The country ranks 147th out of 180 nations on watchdog Transparency International's corruption perception index.

Analysts say resentment has run deep among the Rifles for years because they are paid less than the military and must take orders from army officers. In addition to higher pay, leaders of the rebellion demanded that they be allowed to participate in lucrative United Nations peacekeeping operations.

"The timing is surprising," said Imtiaz Ahmed, head of the Center for Alternatives at the University of Dhaka.

"With the new democratic regime, the parliament is there, the media is open, they could have easily taken their demands and gone to parliament for a hearing."

Although the prime minister offered the paramilitary an amnesty Wednesday and again Thursday, violence spread to Chittagong, the nation's main port, and other outposts.

"We were tortured and deprived by the army officers," said a member of the Rifles in Chittagong, who declined to be identified.

"We are not getting our proper pay and facilities; rather, the army officers humiliated and tortured us."

"Our backs were to the wall so we were forced to stage a military mutiny," he added.

The uprising adds one more source of instability to a region weathering bloody fighting and bombings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India.

"These events should remain contained within Bangladesh's borders, but the instability is worrying," said Bhaskar Roy, a security analyst with the South Asia Analysis Group in New Delhi.

Analysts said the last few days have underscored Dhaka's information and crisis-management shortfall.

"We are very shocked. This shouldn't have happened," said a former senior official, who asked not to be identified. "There's been a fairly large degree of intelligence failure. If this has been brewing for some years, it should've been known by the commanders, if not those at the political level."

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

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Alam is a special correspondent.

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