DHAKA (Reuters) – Bangladesh’s powerful army has reaffirmed its support for the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina after a mutiny by paramilitary troops killed at least 80 people, mostly army officers.
“Let me tell you all again that the Bangladesh army is subservient to the government,” army chief General Moeen U. Ahmed told reporters.
“We are a people’s army serving the nation and upholding democracy. Please stay calm. We are trying to address the situation and resolve (disputes) with the help of everyone,” he said after a meeting with Hasina at her residence late on Friday.
The impoverished South Asian nation has suffered several military coups since independence in 1971. This week’s mutiny by Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) border guards was over pay and command and was not politically motivated, officials said.
The mutiny came as a stern test for Hasina, who took office last month after winning elections in December that brought to an end two years of emergency rule by an army-backed government.
Hasina has the task of trying to convince much-needed foreign investors and aid donors she can bring stability to a country where 40 percent of the 140 million population live in poverty.
The mutiny ended late on Thursday when the rebels laid down their arms after an amnesty offer, made by Hasina late on Wednesday, was followed by threats of stronger action as regular troops, backed by tanks, surrounded the BDR complex in Dhaka.
Home Minister Shahara Khatun said there was no fear of a deterioration of law and order or a repeat of the mutiny, which spread to about a dozen smaller towns across Bangladesh.
But police said many BDR soldiers had fled the headquarters complex with arms and ammunition, as well as money and jewellery they had taken from the homes of dead officers.
A defence ministry spokesman on Saturday asked the missing BDR troops to report to barracks, nearby police stations or command centres within 24 hours or face unspecified punishment.
More than 200 BDR soldiers have been detained already across the country.
More than 50 bodies were recovered on Friday, many from a mass grave and others which had been thrown in sewers and canals. BDR commander Major-General Shakil Ahmed was among the dead.
Two more mass graves were found on the BDR compound on Saturday and searchers said they found at least another 10 bodies, including that of Ahmed’s wife in the first indication that the families of BDR officers had been attacked.
An unknown number of people were still missing and the death toll could rise to more than 100, officials have said.
Private ATN television said some bodies appeared to have been burnt. Weapons and ammunition have were also recovered inside the BDR complex, witnesses said.
Journalists allowed into the homes of dead or missing officers saw the walls and floors stained with blood.
Hasina’s long-standing rival, opposition leader and former premier Begum Khaleda Zia, offered to cooperate with the government in its investigations into the mutiny but criticised Hasina for initially offering the BDR rebels an amnesty.
“This gave them time to kill more people and conceal their brutality,” Khaleda told reporters late on Friday.
BDR officers are usually drawn from regular army units and the mutiny was launched as officers arrived for a meeting.
Moeen said the deaths of so many army officers was an irreparable loss for the army and the country.
He spoke as rumours swirled through the capital that he might step down or that the army might launch “reprisal” strikes over the killing of so many of their colleagues.
Former army chief Lieutenant-General Harunur Rashid warned that the mutiny might not be an isolated incident.
“It may be a conspiracy to destroy the progress of the new democratic government,” Rashid told the “Prothom Alo” newspaper.
A day of mourning was observed on Saturday, with flags flown at half mast across the country and special prayers said.
In Dhaka, activity on the streets appeared normal. Offices and schools were closed for the weekend.