Bangladesh border guards launched a dramatic armed mutiny on Wednesday, taking officers hostage and sparking a fierce gunbattle in the capital that left at least three dead and 21 people wounded.
Police and the regular army were called in to surround the headquarters of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), the South Asian nation’s paramilitary border security force who reportedly took up arms against their superiors over low pay.
Following hours of gunfire and panic in the city, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina met with renegade troops at her home and offered a general amnesty, her spokesman Nakibuddin Ahmed told reporters.
He said a representative of the mutineers had told the prime minister that the troops “would lay down their arms” and return to barracks following the offer.
Sporadic gunfire, however, could still be heard into Wednesday evening, an AFP reporter at the scene said.
Officials said tensions in the force have been simmering for months, but exploded into violence when senior officers dismissed appeals for more pay, more subsidised food and more holidays.
An armed forces spokesman said furious troops quickly seized control of the headquarters of the Rifles — which is home to 3,000 to 4,000 troops and in the Pilkhana area of the capital, Dhaka — and had even “fired at army helicopters hovering over their barracks.”
At least three people were killed, including a BDR soldier and two bystanders, and 21 others wounded, medical officials and witnesses said.
Several television channels said the BDR chief was injured or possibly killed in the fighting, but no official confirmation was available.
Before the prime minister’s intervention, the Bangladesh army called on the renegade troops holed up inside the compound to “surrender and go back to the barracks.”
“Any soldiers who fail to give up arms after this announcement will be prosecuted,” the army said in a statement.
But Hasina, who has been in office for less than two months, was clearly keen to bring a quick and peaceful end to a stand-off that has highlighted the frustrations felt by many Bangladeshis.
These include high food prices, a sluggish economy and rampant corruption within the country’s ruling classes.
Although there was no apparent threat of a coup, an unnamed soldier described as a participant in the mutiny told ATN Bangla television that the mutineers would not give up and had taken their officers hostage.
Since winning independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh has had a history of political violence, coups and counter-coups.
The grindingly poor country was run by military dictator Hussain Mohammad Ershad from 1982 to 1990, before democracy was restored in 1991.
The army again stepped in in January 2007, cancelling elections and declaring a state of emergency following months of political unrest. Democracy was restored with elections last December.