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Dhaka accused of brutality against its tribal peoples

IN APRIL, two Chittagong Hill Tract girls were attacked by boys from a nearby village of Bengali settlers, who tried to rape them. One of the girls defended herself with a knife, wounding one boy. The other boys fled and reported the incident to their village.

Within minutes the Chittagong Hill Tract 'village' of Logang in Bangladesh - many of the tribal people have been forcibly settled in villages surrounded by the military - was besieged by furious Bengalis. Among them were soldiers and members of the paramilitary forces that patrol the area.

The tribal people were herded into the houses and the doors locked. The attackers then set fire to them. When the fires died down, the bodies of the tribal people were thrown on to trucks, together with the few still alive, and tipped into open pits.

Normally, no one outside the Chittagong Hill Tracts would have heard of the incident. The area, ruled over by the Bangladesh military, has been sealed off for the past 15 years. But the massacre took place three days before the annual Chittagong Hill Tract festival of Biju, and a large number of friends and relations of the tribal people were in the neighbourhood, including a number of lawyers, university teachers and members of parliament.

They set up a commission of inquiry to take evidence from the few eyewitnesses who had survived. Pressed by the outside world, the Bangladesh government admitted to 13 dead. The military conceded that the number might perhaps be closer to 140. The commission believes the true figure to be over 1200.

Details of the massacre are being reported to the United Nations in New York today by Bimal Bhikkhu, a Buddhist monk from the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Today is Human Rights Day, and to mark the occasion, as well as launch 1993 as the year of ethnic minorities, the UN has invited members of ethnic groups from all around the world to submit evidence of human rights abuses in their countries.

The first massacre of tribal people by the military took place, according to Mr Bhikkhu, who was in London this week, in 1980, and there have been at least 10 major killings since. 'Killings go on all the time,' he says. 'Torture, beatings, arrests. Many people have been driven into the forests where they live like animals.'

He plans to ask the UN today not only for guarantees that the tribal people will be safe if they return, but that their lands be returned to them, and UN offices opened in the tribal areas.