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Thursday, 24 October, 2002, 14:17 GMT 15:17 UK
Bangladesh's 'al-Qaeda links'
Islamists demonstrate in Dhaka
Islamic groups may call for unity - but extremism is rare

The controversy over claims that Bangladesh has become a safe haven for Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters is continuing to cause a stir amongst the country's politicians.

A Time article alleged recently that the country may become a dangerous new front in America's war against terror and militant Islamic groups may be using Bangladesh to hide arms and ammunition.

It followed a similar story that appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in April.

Dhaka demonstrators burn Bush effigy
Most leaders say support for the Taleban is small
Under the headline "Beware Bangladesh," the article warned that Bangladesh had become a "cocoon of terrorism".

Such allegations have put the government on the defensive, even though both magazines relied extensively on unnamed sources and produced little concrete evidence.

Ministers took comfort from the fact that Mary Ann Peters, the American ambassador, publicly distanced herself from the allegations that appeared in Time.

While many diplomats are similarly dismissive of the magazine's allegations, there are others in Dhaka who argue there is no smoke without fire.

Encouragement

They point out that it is impossible to prove whether gunmen belonging to al-Qaeda disembarked in Bangladesh at the end of last year.


Unquestionably there are certain elements in Bangladeshi society... who were sympathetic towards the Taleban.

Saber Hossain Chowdhury
But what is certain, they argue, is that there are a handful of Islamic religious schools (or madrasas) in Bangladesh which encourage extremism and support for al-Qaeda.

The Bangladeshi Government has nevertheless successfully convinced most impartial commentators that there is no truth in claims that the Taleban has bases in the country.

Many argue the influence of Washington is so strong in the country that even if such bases did exist, they would not last long.

But the government is more vulnerable when it comes to claims made by the main opposition Awami League that two Islamic parties within the governing coalition have a history of links to terror groups.

Blame

Evidence of that, the League says, was clearly seen last month when at least two bombs exploded in the south-western town of Satkhira.

Two people were killed and hundreds injured after explosions in a crowded cinema and in a circus.

The opposition has blamed the attack on a hardline Islamic group with links to the government.

Awami League spokesman Saber Hossain Chowdhury says: "We cannot hide from the truth. Unquestionably there are certain elements in Bangladeshi society, it may only be very small elements, who were sympathetic towards the Taleban.

"In fact there are Members of Parliament and even some ministers in the ruling coalition who were sympathetic towards the Taleban.

"That is a point that we shall continue to make because it is in the interests of the country that we say it."

Supporters accused

The opposition's allegations are quickly dismissed by the four party coalition, dominated by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.

She has accused supporters of the Awami League of being responsible for the Satkhira bombs.

Such acrimonious debate is part and parcel of everyday Bangladeshi political life.

The country is polarised between supporters of the two main parties, a divide made more pronounced by the bitter rivalry between Mrs Zia and the Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina.

The prime minister points out that the country was one of the first to condemn the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Centre.

She also emphasises the fact that they immediately offered America the use of its airspace as part of the war against terror in Afghanistan.

See also:

16 Oct 02 | South Asia
25 Sep 02 | South Asia
27 Aug 02 | South Asia
05 Jul 02 | South Asia
15 Apr 02 | Media reports
20 Nov 01 | South Asia
03 Oct 01 | South Asia
16 Aug 02 | Country profiles
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