Bangladesh security forces arrested nearly 200 border troops yesterday in a nationwide manhunt for mutineers who staged a bloody two-day revolt that turned the capital into a battle zone.
The fate of more than 130 army officers taken hostage by the mutineering guards remained unclear, however, after the rank-and-file troops surrendered and returned to barracks late on Thursday.
Police have put the official death toll at 22, with dozens more injured — but that figure could go up significantly. Some bodies of murdered officers have been pulled from sewers.
“We have arrested nearly 200 Bangladesh Rifles [BDR] troops who fled their barracks in civilian dress. We were given orders to arrest the mutineers,” said a spokesman for the elite Rapid Action Battalion, Commander Abul Kalam Azad.
He said checkpoints had been set up at all routes leading out of the capital Dhaka and surrounding the BDR barracks.
“We are searching buses and trucks for any other rebel troops,” he said.
The BDR guards, who were demanding better pay and conditions, surrendered after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina warned they were on a “suicidal” path that could only end in bloodshed.
As calm returned yesterday to Dhaka, one regular army officer held hostage by the guards talked of his escape as his captors opened fire indiscriminately.
“It was cold-blooded murder,” Syed Kamruzzaman said, adding that BDR chief Major General Shakil Ahmed was gunned down in front of him.
Officials would not confirm Ahmed’s death.
“They hurled abuse at us and gunned down whoever they wanted. I was shot at seven times and was lucky to get out alive,” he said.
An armed forces spokesman said only 31 of the 168 officers inside the Dhaka headquarters when the mutiny began were accounted for and rescue workers were searching sewers in the compound for bodies.
“We don’t know what happened to the rest of the 137 officers. They are still missing,” he said.
One minister earlier said 50 officers may have been killed.
Tensions in the BDR had been simmering for months but erupted into violence early on Wednesday when senior officers rejected appeals for more pay, subsidized food and holidays.
It then petered out, however, after Sheikh Hasina — who took office only two months ago, although she had served as prime minister once before — appeared on national television and threatened to put down the mutiny by force.
The violence was the first major crisis she has faced since her landslide election victory ended two years of army-backed rule.
She had offered the mutineers an amnesty on Wednesday and also promised to address complaints over low pay and working conditions.
Manzoor Hasan, the director of BRAC University’s Institute of Governance Studies in Dhaka, said there were a “few worrying hours” where the prime minister appeared to be losing control.
“It was a bit of a baptism by fire for her. It was a critical test, but I think in the end she tackled it competently,” he said.
The revolt has highlighted the frustrations felt by many in Bangladesh, which suffers from high food prices, a slowing economy and rampant corruption in the upper echelon of society.
Bangladesh has had a history of political violence, coups and counter-coups since winning independence from Pakistan in 1971.
It was run by a military dictator from 1982 to 1990 before democracy was restored in 1991. In January 2007, the army again stepped in, canceled elections and declared a state of emergency after months of political unrest.