A deadly cargo

Print edition : May 21, 2004

Indications are that the arms and ammunition recovered from Chittagong port in Bangladesh were meant for insurgents operating in northeastern India or Nepal.

in Dhaka

THE arms haul at Chittagong port on April 2, the biggest ever in Bangladesh's history, sparked widespread speculation and severe criticism of the measures taken for national security. Media reports suggest that a section of the Chittagong police and some top leaders of the ruling coalition are involved in the incident. Independent media investigations also revealed that a labour leader linked to Jamaat-e-Islami, a major constituent of the ruling coalition, had employed workers at the jetty of the state-owned Chittagong Urea Fertilizer Limited (CUFL) to offload the arms from two fishing trawlers and a local Bangladesh National Party (BNP) leader supervised the clandestine operation. The Khaleda Zia-led government has appointed a five-member high-power inquiry committee headed by Home Secretary Omar Farooque to probe the incident. However, investigations have not made any headway.

State Minister for Home Lutfozzaman Babar inspects the seized arms and ammunition in Chittagong on April 2.-PAVEL RAHMAN/AP

The April 2 incident is by no means the only significant arms seizure in the country. Substantial quantities of arms and ammunition have been recovered from Chittagong, the hill districts of Cox's Bazar and Bandarban, northern Bogra and even Dhaka.

The cache included 690 7.62 mm T-56-I sub-machine guns (SMGs); 600 7.62 mm T-56-2 SMGs; 150 40 mm T-69 rocket launchers; 840 40 mm rockets; 400 9 mm semi-automatic spot rifles; 100 `Tommy Guns'; 150 rocket launchers; 2,000 launching grenades; 25,020 hand grenades; 6,392 magazines of SMG and other arms; 700,000 rounds of SMG cartridges; 739,680 rounds of 7.62 mm calibre; and 400,000 cartridges of other weapons. Most of the arms and ammunition were reportedly of Korean, Italian, Chinese and American make.

Reports indicate that the seized items may have been part of a big consignment, the rest of which would already have reached its destination. Some retired military officers said that the arms and ammunition may have been "destined for a third country" such as India, Myanmar or Nepal. Security experts remarked that they could not have been meant for Bangladesh as there was no armed struggle going on in the country and local terrorist groups were not competent enough to use such sophisticated weapons.

Retired Major General Moinul Hossain Chowdhury said that their destination might have been foreign countries. Retired Brigadier General Shahidul Anam Khan said that even if the consignment was heading for a third country, it would still pose a serious threat to regional peace. Three former Inspectors-General of Police have asked the government to take the help of the Interpol to carry out a comprehensive investigation. The government is yet to respond to the demand.

Opposition leader Sheikh Hasina demanded an international inquiry and alleged that a section of BNP leaders was linked to the incident. Awami League general secretary Abdul Jalil said: "The cache suggests a conspiracy to undermine the country's democratic process." Professor Imtiaz Ahmad of the Department of International Relations, Dhaka University, said: "Bangladesh has been used as a transit route for arms and drugs for a long time. In recent years, a local market has been created inside the country."

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.-RAFIQUR RAHMAN/REUTERS

Reactions to the seizure came from across the border too. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that the arms consignment was meant for the separatist United Liberation Front of Asom guerillas operating in the State. On April 17, India's High Commissioner in Dhaka Veena Sikri met Bangladesh Foreign Minister Morshed Khan and expressed India's concern. Media reports in Bangladesh claimed that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was involved in the shipment, the ultimate destination of which was northeastern India. There are also reports that the seizure was possible thanks to a tipoff from a neighbouring country's intelligence organisation. But the Foreign Minister has denied the claim. State Minister for Home Lutfozzaman Babar claimed that the weapons were smuggled in as part of a `conspiracy of subversion' and did not rule out links to the April 30 deadline set by the main Opposition party, the Awami League, to bring the government down.

Importantly, the issue gained added significance when Chittagong City Mayor and Awami League leader A.B.M. Mohiuddin Chowdhury alleged that Indian insurgent groups ran "at least 50 to 60 camps" in Bangladesh to train militants. Addressing a media conference on April 10, the Mayor claimed that the weapons were sent by the U.S. and Pakistan "to arm Indian rebels camped in Chittagong Hill Tracts". The Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry, the Army Headquarters and the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka denied Chowdhury's allegations. The Pakistan Embassy did not respond to the allegations. But the Mayor reiterated his position on April 12 and challenged the claims of the government and the U.S. Embassy.

As the origin of the consignment and its end-users still remain a mystery, there are allegations that the government has already started taking steps to weaken the probe. Ironically, the police officer who was alleged to have been overseeing the unloading of the consignment at the CUFL jetty and hence one of the main accused in the case will conduct the `probe'. Moreover, no deadline has been fixed for the Home Secretary-led committee to file its report. In his first official appearance before the media on April 13, the Home Secretary "confirmed" the involvement of three persons in the smuggling but said that the police had failed to arrest them. He said that the committee had found "no political links" to the incident.

Ordinary criminals in Bangladesh do not have a history of use of such weapons and partisan political violence has not graduated to the level of sophistication reflected in the arms cache. Over the past decade, however, a number of extremist Islamist groups with reported international links have become active in Bangladesh. In an earlier, significant arms haul on June 27, 2003, in the northwestern Bogra district, the police recovered 100,000 cartridges and about 200 kg of explosives from an abandoned truck. The truck owner - Jogesh Dev Barman, a top leader of the Tripura Cooperatives Association, a front organisation of the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) - was arrested from the southeastern border district of Habibganj.

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