BDR men wait at the gate of their Pilkhana headquarters in the capital for a negotiation team yesterday afternoon. Awami League lawmaker from Gaibandha-2 constituency Mahbub Ara Gini braves fear and heads towards the gate carrying a white flag, a symbol of peace. Photo: SK Enamul Haq
A bloody mutiny by Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) soldiers sent Dhaka into a war footing yesterday as the paramilitaries fired several thousand shots from machineguns, killing at least two army officers, one non-commissioned BDR officer, and three civilians in BDR Pilkhana Headquarters.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina offered a general amnesty to the mutineers who held more than 100 top officers hostage. But law-enforcers, surrounding the headquarters since morning yesterday, told The Daily Star that many of the officers were feared dead including Director General of BDR Maj Gen Shakil Ahmed.
As the situation remained almost unchanged even hours after the amnesty had been announced, Home Minister Sahara Khatun accompanied by Fazle Noor Taposh MP led a team of government negotiators to a meeting with representatives of the mutineers in Amabala Inn restaurant right next to the Rifles Square shopping mall around 10:00pm.
After the meeting, Taposh told reporters that the mutineers would surrender their arms, but it might take another hour or an hour and a half to initiate the process. Then the home minister and the rest of the government delegation entered the headquarters.
While the government delegation was inside the headquarters, gunshots were still being fired, and the mutineers were threatening that they would not surrender, until the army is withdrawn, and if their demand was not met they would blow up the entire BDR headquarters.
Bodies of the two officers -- Col Mujibul Huq and Lt Col Enayetul Haq -- were recovered from a sewage system outside the BDR headquarters. But their deaths were not officially declared till filing of this report at 3:45am today.
Col Gulzar Uddin Ahmed, who had joined the BDR early this month following his illustrious stint as the additional director general of Rab, frantically phoned his former colleagues for help from inside the headquarters. But at one point his cell phone went dead.
Sources said the number of dead officers would be much higher. Witnesses said they saw scores of bodies lying on the ground in and around Pilkhana, adding that some jawans were seen stabbing the bodies with bayonets.
Unofficial sources claimed that at least a half of around 6,000 soldiers opposed the mutiny. Many of them were killed along with the officers, though it could not be confirmed. Some of the disagreeing soldiers fled Pilkhana as soon as they saw the killing of the officers, unconfirmed sources said.
They added that the bodies of the slain persons were dumped through the manholes of Pilkhana sewers.
The mutiny apparently had no specific leader, although the rebels named one Nayek Shahid as their leader in their television interviews. Sources said they were acting as sparse small groups.
Following a circulation of leaflets by the rebels on Tuesday, tension prevailed in Pilkhana throughout the night between officers and sepoys.
Except for the recovery of the two officers' bodies, no information on the whereabouts of any other officer was available throughout the day and into the night. The mutineers also did not disclose any useful information about them.
Sources said not all hostage officers were confined in Darbar Hall, many of them were taken to different buildings.
Some mutineers claimed in television interviews in the afternoon that one officer had been killed. But within hours of that claim the two bodies of high officials were recovered from the BDR sewage system that ended at Rayerbazar -- indicating that the number of casualties was much higher.
Thousands of army personnel surrounded the BDR headquarters with cannons, recoilless rifles, heavy machineguns and rocket launchers. Trucks after trucks, soldiers after soldiers filed through the streets of Dhanmondi, Satmasjid Road and Jigatola.
According to a SMS from Mujibul Huq's son, sent from the BDR compound at noon, Mujib's house was set on fire and he could not come out fearing death by gunshots. No information about Mujib's son, daughter, and wife could be gathered after that.
Mujib had led BDR's Dal-Bhaat programme under the caretaker government and was present at Pilkhana's Darbar Hall from where the mutiny sparked during a speech of Maj Gen Shakil Ahmed, on the occasion of the BDR Week.
The mutineers began by speaking out at the Darbar Hall against the BDR high-ups, accusing them of misappropriating 'profits' made from the Dal-Bhaat programme, where 12 BDR sector commanders, many battalion commanders, and headquarters officers had gathered.
At least three civilians were dead and 23 civilians were injured from bullets fired indiscriminately by the mutineers. One BDR jawan was admitted to Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH).
The violent mutiny launched by 5,000 to 6,000 jawans rocked the well-populated Dhanmondi-Azimpur-Hazaribag area throughout the day.
After the prime minister announced an amnesty for the mutineers in the evening, responding to their demands, they allowed more than 15 injured jawans to come out of Pilkhana around 7:30pm on ambulances. They were admitted to Holy Family Hospital.
However, till filing of this report, the mutiny did not end and tension mounted again as the army were not withdrawn from the surrounding areas of Pilkhana.
The headquarters was seized by the mutineers in such a way that the rest of the world was not getting any clear information about what was going on inside.
Even the army and Rab personnel, who were deployed with firearms and cannons around the headquarters, also could not fathom the situation.
The news of the mutiny spread through mobile phone calls, apparently triggering unrest in other BDR stations in Chittagong, Rangpur, Jessore and Khulna. However, violence was averted in those stations.
The mutineers seized control and took positions at the five gates of Pilkhana, the Rifles Square market, and at other points inside the compound with machineguns, light machine guns, mortars, anti-tank rifles, armoured vehicles, and rocket launchers.
They were so violent that they fired machineguns at military helicopters around 12:30pm, when choppers were being sent there to quell the situation. As they missed the targets, the choppers retreated.
Several thousand others, who are family members of the jawans and officers, also remained hostage to the situation as they could not come out of the Pilkhana area.
As thousands of gunshots and explosions kept rocking Pilkhana, all houses, offices and commercial centres in the adjacent areas including New Market, shut their windows and doors.
Hundreds of BDR soldiers wearing red bandanas or helmets and partly covering their faces, were seen staging armed processions in front of the gates since 10.30am. They chanted slogans saying, "We have been deprived for a long time, we have deep grievances."
According to the rebels, over 3,300 soldiers belonging to battalions 24, 36, 13, and 44 in Dhaka and 3,000 more coming from various battalions of the country, gathered in Pilkhana on the occasion of the BDR Week, and ended up participating in the mutiny that went almost unchallenged inside the compound.
There are 46 battalions in the country, each having 826 soldiers totalling to nearly 40,000 soldiers in the entire BDR. The number of officers in BDR is between 250 and 300, they added.
Satmasjid Road, Dhanmondi Road no 1 and 2, and Mirpur Road in front of Dhaka College looked deserted. People took refuge in alleys and were seen peeping from corners to observe the situation.
The situation was so tense that when a stray bullet seriously injured a student near Jigatola at noon, he lay on the ground for more than an hour till he could be rescued and admitted to Ibn Sina Hospital at 3:00pm, where he was declared dead.
At noon the first batch of army personnel arrived on Satmasjid Road and started marching towards the main BDR gate. The rebels taking positions in Rifles Square shopping mall, on top of the sentry post, and behind the BDR gate, started firing machineguns instantly putting the marching army in disarray. Many of them were injured while running to safety.
Some BDR personnel were also injured while attempting to get into Pilkhana area by climbing over high walls.
The rebels also held hostage many women and children in different buildings. Some women were locked inside the BDR gym.
A few BDR officers who had not attended the Darbar Hall programme in the morning but were inside their offices in Pilkhana, were also locked inside their rooms after their mobile phones were taken away and land phone lines were snapped.
Army sources said, to save themselves from attacks, some officers had taken off their rank badges to melt in the crowd of mutineers who were also wearing uniforms without any rank badge.
The mutiny caused countrywide tension as all feared a peaceful ending of the situation would be very hard to ensure.
During the BNP rule between 1991 and 1996, the lower tier of BDR had staged mutinies in Dhaka, Chittagong, Feni, Jessore, Khulna and Naogaon, expressing similar grievances.
Those mutinies did not witness bloodshed and the jawans were assured of measures addressing their issues which were ultimately shelved.
The mutinous BDR soldiers started turning in their arms to police in presence of Home Minister Sahara Khatun around 2:30am after about two hours of negotiation with the minister.
Soon after the surrender of arms began, heavy gunshots were heard from inside the BDR headquarters.
A little earlier, the mutineers were heard announcing on megaphone that if attacked, the soldiers would fight back. Half an hour later, Sahara was heard over megaphone urging the soldiers to turn in arms.