Unrest spreads in Bangladesh

Bangladeshi soldiers take position armed with automatic weapons in Dhaka on Wednesday.
A mutiny by members of Bangladesh’s paramilitary force appeared to have spread beyond the capital, Dhaka, to other towns Thursday — while a deadly hostage standoff in the troops’ main headquarters entered a second day with few signs of a resolution.

In a televised address Thursday afternoon, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina once again urged the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) paramilitary troops to lay down their arms, saying she was granting them general amnesty. “Lay down your arms and I assure you, you will not be harmed,” she said. “Do not take a path where patience runs out and I, on behalf of the country, am forced to take stern action.” Her call appeared to fall on deaf ears. BDR troops who are holding dozens of high-ranking officers and military brass hostage at BDR headquarters in the Pilkhana area of the capital remained holed up. Occasionally, they fired into the air, sending onlookers and journalists gathered outside scrambling for cover. Meanwhile, police in about six other towns reported shooting incidents involving Bangladesh Rifles troops, a government official confirmed to CNN. The incidents do not appear to have resulted in casualties, the official said. He did not want to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media. Bangladesh Police spokesman Kamrul Ahsan disputed the reports. But they were enough to send an already jittery city into panic mode. “Yesterday, people thought this was an internal BDR grievance and it would be worked out,” said Rashid Zaman, a Dhaka resident. “Now, we see the scope is much broader, that it’s getting serious. There’s an uncertainty. No one knows which way things will turn.” Watch a witness describe seeing and hearing the gunbattle ยป Shops and offices in the capital sent workers home, where they sat glued to television sets watching the developments — or lack thereof — unfold. Adding to the city’s paranoia: Dhaka residents suddenly found themselves unable to make or receive calls from elsewhere in the country. “Many people are finding this troubling,” said Zahid Hussain, a former journalist who is now part of a U.S.-funded effort to create an investigative journalism center in the country. “Whenever the army has gone into action in the past, they cut off the mobile connection so nobody can pass information.” The standoff at the Bangladesh Rifles headquarters began Wednesday morning after a gunbattle. At least 50 officers and civilians were feared dead in the gunfire, the country’s law minister said. As dawn broke Thursday, the rebelling troops with the Bangladesh Rifles allowed government officials entry into the headquarters. They went door-to-door at officers’ quarters to assure frightened women and children it was safe to come out. CNN was not immediately able to confirm the exact casualty count, with medical officials saying a final number would come after they had a chance to comb through the premises looking for bodies.

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Meanwhile, at least six bodies were recovered from rivers and drainage ditches Thursday. At least two of them had on military uniforms, government officials said. Authorities say the men had been killed and their bodies dumped in sewers. They were recovered after they floated for miles down rivers. The Rifles, a paramilitary force, is responsible primarily for guarding the country’s borders. The force, more than 65,000-strong, also takes part in operations such as monitoring polls. The troops staged their rebellion on the second day of BDR Week, when officers and troop members from various BDR outposts along the border were in the capital for celebrations. At least 5,000 BDR personnel were inside the compound when the mutiny occurred about 7:45 a.m. local time Wednesday, said Mohammed Sajjad Haider, spokesman for the information ministry. The rebelling troops were low-ranking members of the BDR, akin to infantrymen, who were angry at the way they were treated by their superiors, Haider said.

“They have several demands,” Haider said. “They want pay parity with the army, they want job security, they want better food rations.” The mutiny is the most serious crisis for Bangladesh’s newly elected government, which came into power in December after two years of army-backed rule.