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50 dead in Bangladesh mutiny

DHAKA, Feb 26 – A mutiny by thousands of members of Bangladesh’s paramilitary border security force spread to areas outside the capital Dhaka Thursday, as officials reported nearly 50 army officers were feared killed.

The spread of the violence came despite the offer of a general amnesty for renegade troops from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who also promised to address complaints over low pay and working conditions.

Police chiefs across the poor and chronically unstable South Asian nation said rank-and-file members of the Bangladesh Rifles, or BDR, had revolted in 12 border districts — or roughly a quarter of the zones where border security forces are stationed.

"They are firing indiscriminately," said one of the police chiefs, from the north-eastern Moulivibazar district. "Their commanding officer told me that he has fled the camp."

Another local police chief, Kamrul Ahsan from the south-eastern town of Satkania, reported "heavy fighting" at a BDR training centre.

Officials were also struggling to bring an end to the initial revolt in Dhaka, a part of which had been turned into battle zone.

Deputy law minister Kamrul Islam said the situation remained tense as thousands of armed troops were still believed to be inside the BDR headquarters in the capital, keeping police and government negotiators waiting outside.

"The BDR troops began surrendering arms in our presence. But there are some 15,000 of them — around 12,000 could have weapons," Islam told AFP.

"The situation is still very tense," he said, adding that at least 50 officers held hostage were feared dead.

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"We talked to the BDR troops and they said some 50 officers have been killed," he told reporters, adding he could not confirm the deaths as he had not seen the bodies himself.

"We heard that the casualties were kept at a hospital inside the compound," he said. "There are no traces of the officers."

In total, 10 people have already been confirmed dead and dozens more wounded.

A rebel guard said he doubted surrender would take place smoothly.

"They told us to surrender arms. But we have reports that army troops have attacked our camps outside the capital. We want peace but not bloodshed," the rebel BDR guard told AFP.

The unrest is the first major crisis to face Prime Minister Hasina since she took office less than two months ago, after a landslide election victory that ended two years of army-backed rule.

Hasina’s office said she would address the nation on Thursday.

Officials said tensions in the BDR had been simmering for months but exploded into violence when senior officers dismissed appeals for more pay, subsidised food and holidays.

The stand-off highlights the frustrations felt by many people in impoverished Bangladesh — a country suffering from high food prices, a slowing economy and rampant corruption within the country’s ruling classes.

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Since winning independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh has had a history of political violence, coups and counter-coups.

The country was run by military dictator Hussain Mohammad Ershad from 1982 to 1990, before democracy was restored in 1991.

In January 2007, the army again stepped in, cancelling elections and declaring a state of emergency following months of political unrest. Democracy was restored with elections last December.


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