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Dhaka mutineers surrender weapons, troops move in

DHAKA (Reuters) - Mutinous members of a paramilitary unit in the Bangladesh capital surrendered their weapons on Thursday as tanks surrounded their headquarters after a second day of gunfire in a mutiny that killed about 50 people.

Government officials and police said the mutiny in Dhaka was under control and urged members of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) border guards who had mutinied elsewhere in the country over pay and command issues to lay down their arms.

Gunfire in the capital gradually subsided and stopped after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina threatened tough action in a national broadcast, a day after offering mutineers an amnesty.

“All the rebel troops have surrendered with their arms and the process has been completed,” Hasina’s media spokesman, Abul Kalam Azad, said of the BDR troops in the capital.

At least 20 government tanks and 15 armored personnel carriers ringed the BDR headquarters in Dhaka, where nearly 50 people were killed in Wednesday’s violence.

Hundreds of BDR mutineers handed over their weapons, including automatic rifles, machineguns and grenades, to police who locked the weapons inside two armories in the BDR complex.

“Police have locked the armories and handed me the keys after the troops completed the surrender,” Home Minister Sahara Khatun told reporters outside the BDR headquarters, where the mutiny broke out Wednesday.

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Those killed in the shooting there and nearby included eight army officers and six civilians, police said.

Private Chanel-I television, quoting security officials, reported Thursday that 168 army officers were present at the meeting at the BDR headquarters when the shooting started.

“Eight of them have been found dead, 22 have been rescued alive but the others including the paramilitary chief, Major-General Sakil Ahmed, are missing,” Channel-I said.

Some security sources and the media said Sakil and his family might have been killed but there was no official comment.

“I myself was at the meeting and saw the chief (Sakil) and others being shot,” one army officer told a private TV station.

Hundreds of regular soldiers in battledress surrounded the BDR headquarters as the surrender was completed. About 60 BDR troops who tried to flee the compound were arrested, and 200 BDR officers held hostage in the complex were freed, police said.

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The turmoil underscores the challenges facing Hasina, who took office last month after winning parliamentary elections in December that returned Bangladesh to democracy after nearly two years of army-backed emergency rule.

Shooting involving BDR troops erupted in more than a dozen other towns Thursday, local police said, but Reuters reporters later said calm was returning.

“Lay down your guns immediately and go back to barracks. Do not force me to take tough actions or push my patience beyond tolerable limits,” Hasina told restive BDR troops in her broadcast. “Give democracy and the economy a chance to develop.”

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Opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia, a former premier, urged the government to find the reason for the mutiny and offered her cooperation. “At this hour of national crisis, we are ready to fully cooperate with the government...” she said in a statement.

Bangladesh, home to more than 140 million people, has had several military coups since independence in 1971, but this week’s mutinies are over pay, benefits and the command structure, not politics, officials and local media said.

Traditionally the BDR is led by army officers but some BDR troops want commanders drawn from their own ranks. The BDR’s main duty is guarding the country’s borders, but its troops often back up the army and police on other duties.

Additional reporting by Ruma Paul, Serajul Islam Quadir, Azad Majumder and Rafiqur Rahman; editing by Tim Pearce