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Bangladesh spared more gunfire

A Bangladesh Rifles soldier wears a white cloth to signify surrender, 26 February 2009
Most of the mutineers were persuaded to give up peacefully

By Mark Dummett
BBC News, Dhaka

As tanks rolled towards the front gate of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) headquarters in Dhaka on Thursday afternoon it looked like this crisis would end it as began - with gunfire and deaths.

This time the devastation would have been even more terrible, with the several thousand mutineers surrounded by the overwhelming firepower of the Bangladesh armed forces.

At one point the large crowds of the curious were pushed back by the army - it looked like the final assault was about to start.

Meanwhile, inside the large compound of the BDR base, and under the most intense pressure imaginable, a delegation led by the Home Minister Shahara Khatun, bravely negotiated an end to the crisis.

As they talked the occasional burst of gunfire still rang out.

Turning point

First they persuaded the mutineers, who apparently launched their rebellion spontaneously on Wednesday morning following a disagreement with commanding officers over pay and conditions, to release their remaining hostages.

About 150 people - mainly women and children - but also including 20 BDR officers, were freed.

Tanks near the Bangladesh Rifles headquarters in Dhaka, 26 February 2009
Tanks had drawn up near the BDR headquarters in Dhaka

Then they talked the mutineers into laying down their guns.

Some tried to escape and were arrested, but the vast majority, who officials say could number up to 7,000, gave up peacefully.

"The crisis is over," a ruling party MP who was involved in the negotiations, Waraset Hossein Belal, told me from inside the base soon afterwards.

"They have surrendered their weapons; they have also surrendered themselves in front of our home minister," he said.

The turning point in the crisis was the televised address of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

"Do not force me to take tough actions or push my patience beyond tolerable limits," she said.

Wider threat?

Before she spoke to the nation halfway through the afternoon, it looked like the crisis was spiralling out of control.

The mutiny had spread around the country, from town to town, from BDR camp to BDR camp.

The force, which guards the country's borders and where necessary supports the army and police, has as many as 70,000 men.

So this rapidly became a major, nationwide security crisis.

But by the end of the day, the government seems to have reasserted its authority.

It now needs to ask whether this uprising was down to a group of renegade soldiers - in which case the army high command will need to look into issues surrounding discipline, as well as pay and conditions.

Or could this mutiny have been a sign of something wider and more troubling?

Namely, that the millions of poorly paid Bangladeshis, who are faced with rising food prices, might have reached breaking point.

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