Page last updated at 17:20 GMT, Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Bangladesh becomes battle zone

An army solider with an artillery weapon near the BDR headquarters in Dhaka
The army surrounded the BDR barracks in an upscale residential area of Dhaka

By Mark Dummett
BBC News, Dhaka

Bangladesh's newspapers on Wednesday morning all carried pictures of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina saluting members of the country's paramilitary border force, the Bangladesh Rifles, at their annual parade the day before.

The BDR will feature on all of Thursday's front pages as well - but this time for turning the peaceful streets of the capital into a battle zone.

For about five hours, bullets whizzed over rooftops and the occasional thud of mortar rounds echoed along the strangely empty streets.

Dhaka is one of the most congested cities on the planet, but for once there were no traffic jams.

Instead the army had planted rows of anti-aircraft cannons at key junctions near the barracks, and heavily-armed policemen forced vehicles off the roads.

Bangladeshi border guards carry an injured colleague into the BDR headquarters
Bangladeshi border guards launched the mutiny over pay and benefits

Street children pointed out patches of dried blood on a pavement.

As a military helicopter flew over the BDR headquarters - a large compound famous for its rose gardens that sits in the heart of a plush residential neighbourhood - the mutineers let rip with an almighty barrage of automatic gunfire.

A large plume of smoke billowed out of the barracks' conference centre, where Bangladeshi news channels speculated that the men had held their commanding officers captive.

For a while, regular army units tried to fight their way into the barracks from at least two directions.

We have taken up arms to save our souls. This is a clash between the army and the BDR because they have always exploited us.
BDR mutineer

From our position on a roof nearby we could here one of the mutineers calling out to his colleagues with a megaphone.

"Brothers, let's stay together," he declared. "The army is trying to come in and we will stop them by any means."

Later one of the men telephoned the BBC Bengali service in Dhaka.

He complained that the BDR rank and file had been mistreated by their officers, who are seconded by the regular army, for generations.

"We have taken up arms to save our souls," the unnamed soldier said. "This is a clash between the army and the BDR because they have always exploited us. It has been the same thing for 200 years," he said. "This is not political."

Profound implications

Today's extraordinary events certainly will have profound political implications.

Sheikh Hasina 30 Dec 2008
Sheikh Hasina offered an amnesty to the mutineers

Bangladesh has a new government which only took office in January. It will now have the tricky task of deciding how to deal with the mutineers.

The man who called us said they were supported by 20,000 men, but that is certainly a massive exaggeration.

Nevertheless the BDR has bases around the country and thousands of men who might sympathise with the rebels.

Of equal concern to the government will be how a dispute over pay and conditions could have escalated so suddenly, surprisingly and violently.

By nightfall it seemed as if a settlement between the mutineers and the government might have been reached, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina personally negotiating an amnesty for the men in exchange for them laying down their weapons.

But they have not yet done that, and as the standoff at the BDR headquarters continues, the mood this night is still tense.

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