Police in Bangladesh arrested two owners of a garment factory in a shoddily constructed building that collapsed this week, killing at least 324 people, as protests spread to a second city yesterday, with hundreds of people throwing stones and setting fire to vehicles.
The wife of the building owner, who is on the run, was also detained in an attempt to force him to surrender. Bangladeshi police often detain relatives of missing suspects as a way of pressuring them to surrender.
Rescue workers continued to bring badly decomposed bodies out of the tangled mess of concrete, bricks and steel amid frenzied efforts to pull out remaining survivors, more than three days after the building came down in the worst tragedy to hit Bangladesh’s massive, but poorly regulated, garment industry that supplies clothes to top Western brand names.
Teams were going in from seven entry points gouged into the rubble. Every once in a while a body would be brought out, covered in cloth and plastic, to a spot where ambulances were parked. Workers furiously sprayed air-fresheners on the bodies to cover the stench, leaving the air thick with the smell of death and cheap perfume.
The bodies were kept at the nearby Adharchandra High School before being handed over to families. Many people milled around at the school, waving photos of their missing loved ones. Bangladeshi military spokesman Shahinul Islam said 324 bodies have been recovered and 2,419 people accounted for, including 19 who were pulled out yesterday.
Police in riot gear formed a cordon around the site to keep away hundreds of protesters who have been venting their anger at the situation since Wednesday. The protests have spread outside Savar, a Dhaka suburb where the collapse happened.
Police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and used sticks to disperse several hundred stone-throwing garment workers yesterday in Savar, a police official said.
Clashes also erupted in other parts of Dhaka and in the southeastern city of Chittagong where hundreds of workers took to the streets and vandalized vehicles.
They also put up roadblocks, disrupting traffic.
Authorities shut down garment factories in Dhaka for fear of violence, which has persisted over demands that police arrest the owners of the factories and the building.
Bangladeshi Junior Home Minister Shamsul Haque Tuku said police had arrested Bazlus Samad, managing director of New Wave Apparels Ltd, and Mahmudur Rahman Tapash, the company chairman.
He told reporters that police had also detained the wife of Mohammed Sohel Rana, the owner of the collapsed Rana Plaza building, for questioning. The top three floors of the eight-story building were built illegally.
Bangladeshi authorities are still searching for Rana, a local politician, who has not been seen publicly since the collapse. Negligence cases have been filed against him.
Dhaka Police Superintendent Habibur Rahman said Rana was a local leader of the ruling Awami League’s youth front. His arrest, and that of the factory owners, was ordered by Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is also the head of the Awami League.
Rescuers cautiously used hammers, shovels and their bare hands to search for bodies. Many of the trapped workers were so badly hurt and weakened that they needed to be removed within a few hours, rescuers said.
There were fears that even if unhurt, the survivors could be badly dehydrated, with daytime temperatures soaring to 35°C and about 24°C overnight.
A garment manufacturers’ group said the factories in the building employed 3,122 workers, but it was not clear how many were inside it when it collapsed.
Clashes broke out between the relatives and police, who used batons to disperse them. Police said 50 were injured in the skirmishes.
“We want to go inside the building and find our people now. They will die if we don’t find them soon,” said Shahinur Rahman, whose mother was missing.
Police say they ordered an evacuation of the building on Tuesday after cracks were found in Rana Plaza, but the factories ignored the order and were operating when it collapsed the next day.
Video footage shot before the collapse shows cracks in walls, with apparent attempts at repair. It also shows columns missing chunks of concrete and police talking to building operators.