Tanks rolled into the streets of Bangladesh's capital yesterday after a mutiny among paramilitary forces spread across the country, leaving at least 50 dead and forcing the Prime Minister to warn of "tough action" if the rebels did not lay down their arms.
"Lay down your guns immediately and go back to barracks," Sheikh Hasina, elected just two months ago to a second spell as premier, warned in a televised address as gunfire broke out for the second consecutive day. "Do not force me to take tough actions or push my patience beyond tolerable limits. Give democracy and the economy a chance to develop."
The mutiny presenting Ms Hasina with her first major challenge since being sworn in, was launched by the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles, responsible for protecting the borders. They have been complaining about pay and conditions, especially when compared to those of regular troops.
The dispute has been simmering for some time, but few appear to have anticipated that it would result in a mutiny which began on Wednesday at the paramilitaries' headquarters in Dhaka. It was thought the violence had been doused by Wednesday evening but it broke out again yesterday morning, both in Dhaka and elsewhere around the country where the border guards have bases. Reports suggest that several senior officers are among the dead.
In Dhaka at least, Ms Hasina's threat to "do whatever is needed to end the violence", appeared to have worked: reports last night said border guards holed-up in their headquarters had hoisted a white flag and were laying down their arms. "All the rebel troops have surrendered with their arms and the process has been completed," the Prime Minister's spokesman said.
But elsewhere around the country the situation was unclear. Earlier reports said members of the 42,000-strong border guard force had been firing weapons into the air outside their bases. Witnesses said violence also erupted at the border guard posts in Cox's Bazar, Chittagong and Naikhongchari in the south, Sylhet in the north-east, and Rajshahi and Naogaon in the north-west.
Bangladesh is no stranger to insurrections among its armed forces. Ms Hasina's father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh and its first president, was assassinated by army officers in a coup in 1975. Ms Hasina, his eldest child, was out of the country at the time.
But this mutiny appears to be about pay and conditions rather than politics. The border guards have complained that they are badly discriminated against and that they receive lower pay and fewer rations than their colleagues in the army. They have also protested that they are ineligible to serve with UN peacekeeping missions, which pay very well. The border guards are also unhappy that their officers are from the army, rather than their own ranks.
Either way, the mutiny is a major challenge for Ms Hasina and her Awami League-led government, just two months after she secured a convincing win in a parliamentary election that ended two years of emergency rule by a military-controlled interim government. In such a context, the civilian government will be desperate to maintain control of the various factions of the armed forces and avoid any circumstances in which the military might consider another coup.
"This poses a huge challenge for the Prime Minister and her government, which need to be tactful in trying to resolve it," said retired Major-General Azizur Rahman, a former chief of the border guards.
Overnight, Ms Hasina had offered an amnesty to the mutineers who surrendered their weapons. But when violence broke out again, she declared in her address: "We don't want to use force to break the stand-off. But don't play with our patience. We will not hesitate to do whatever is needed to end the violence if peaceful means fail."Reuse content