Friday, April 09, 2004

Whose Arms are They Anyway?

While the country’s law and order has been deteriorating sharply, a huge cache of arms has been seized in Chittagong. According to Shubid Ali Bhuiyan, a retired Major General of Army, the retrieved arms and ammunition are almost equivalent to the ones of Comilla Division of the Bangladesh Army. “A regular battle can be fought with such amount of armoury,” he says. While the government and its intelligence remain as indifferent as ever, the recovery of weapons like assault rifles and rocket-launchers sends a chilling message to those who still believe in a happy and stable Bangladesh.

Rumours have been raging across the country as to the identity of the owners and the destinations of the weapons. Shocked and confused, the citizens have been asking themselves the fateful question, whose arms are they anyway?

The story began on April 1, at around 11:45, when a crane truck appeared on the jetty of the Chittagong Urea Fertiliser Factory (CUFF). The night of an otherwise silent state-owned jetty became noisy with sounds of around 150 porters offloading wooden boxes from two ships, MV Khawja and FT Amanat in a synchronised precision. Though the Chittagong Metropolitan Police (CMP) have claimed to have recovered the cache, largely credited to a tip-off from a foreign intelligence, Kazi Abu Tayeeb, the Ansar commander at the CUFF, has a different story to narrate.

According to Tayeeb, smugglers were offloading the largest ever arms cache recovered in the country with active “help from local police”. Tayeeb alleged 10 truckloads of arms were being offloaded in the presence of Karnaphuli Police Station’s Officer-in-Charge (OC) Ahadur Rahman, Sergeant Alauddin, Havilder Golam Rasul and Constable Mohiuddin. The crane truck, Tayeeb said to the national dailies, rammed into the vehicle of an Ansar member Minazur Rahman; heated altercations followed; and by this time a trawler moored to the jetty, two young men appeared, too, constantly talking on their cell phones. Minazur became suspicious.

“I rushed to the jetty after receiving a phone call from Minazur,” Tayeeb said. He in turn, according to newspaper reports, informed the incident to his boss, Mobin Hossain Khan, assistant security officer of CUFF. Mobin immediately sought help from the top officials at the CMP. In the meantime, Mobin went to the crime scene and demanded an explanation from OC Ahadur for what was going on in his presence. Ahadur in a show of indifference, asked Mobin if he would like to have some tea from the nearest tea-stall.
Tayeeb, Minazur and Mobin’s hard work, however, did not go in vain. A huge contingent of police led by the CMP Deputy Commissioner, Abdullahil Baki arrived before the early dawn of April 2. Interestingly, porters, along with two young men, were allowed to melt away in front of police reinforcement.
The recovery was huge--1, 290 SMGs, 100 Tommy guns, 400 semi-automatic spot Rifles, 150 rocket launchers with 40-mm barrels, 2000 grenade launchers, 840 rockets (40mm), 25,020 hand grenades, 6, 392 magazines of SMGs and 18,40 lakh bullets.

The colossal nature of the arms retrieved has shocked many. “The weapons hauled are generally used in classical wars against a regular army,” said Brigadier General (retd) Shahidul Anam Khan, a national security expert. “Bombs were exploded in some of the recent deadly incidents in the country such as the ones in at the Udichi’s cultural programme in Jessore and Bangla New Year’s celebration in Ramna Green in Dhaka,” Shahidul said. But, he continued, rockets or AK-47 rifles or Uzi submachine guns have never been used in any sort of terrorist activities here, he continued.

Major General Shubid Ali Bhuiyan agrees. He supports a long-standing allegation, which claims that huge caches of arms have regularly been smuggled to different South Asian insurgent groups through Bangladesh. “There is no big underground party in Bangladesh, which could possibly bring such a huge consignment of arms,” he says.

Meanwhile, on April 3, the police lodged two cases with the Karnaphulli Police Station (KPS) in connection with the arms haul. Interestingly, Ahadur Rahman, alleged to have linked with the gunrunners, has been made the plaintiff; if that is not all, the beleaguered OC of the KPS has been assigned as the investigative officer.



Bangladeshis are, in fact, no strangers to arms smuggling. A series of arms hauls in the last 10-years have made Bangladesh one of the safest places for arms smugglers in South Asia.
Actually subsequent governments have remained suspiciously indifferent in the face of an onslaught of allegations. In fact, last year, the General Manager (Admin) of the CUFF, ABM Nowsher, had asked the higher police authorities to take action against illegal berthing. “Apart from posing a serious threat to the security and safety of the port city, illegal berthing was also harming the jetty and the movement of vessels by blocking the river channel,” Nowsher wrote in a letter. Nothing has done to improve the situation; even after the general manager quite openly described it grave and a threat to national security.
It is a long list though. In June last year, the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) hauled a huge cache of arms, ammunition and high-frequency communications devices from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), which has a 172km porous border with neighbouring India.

The BDR, along with the army, later, seized another huge cache of arms and explosives in 10 hauls in the three districts of CHT. This time the armoury included antiaircraft machineguns, rocket launchers, grenade launchers, Chinese and US made AK-47, M-79, M-16 rifles and grenades.

The latest recovery in Chittagong dwarfed even the arms haul in Bogra; then dubbed as the biggest ever arms haul in independent Bangladesh. June 27 last year, the police retrieved over 1-lakh bullets and about 200kgs of explosives from an abandoned truck in a remote village. The truck-owner, Jogesh Dev Burman--allegedly closely associated with the Tripura Co-operative Association--was later arrested in a forest in Habiganj.

The incidents of arms recovery, however, continued. November 30 last year, four AK-47 rifles, two revolvers, 20 hand grenades, four time bombs, 1,000 AK-47 bullets, 2kg plastic explosives and sophisticated walkie-talkies were recovered after a gunfight with a criminal outfit in Dhaka, near the US Embassy Building.

In fact several police reports indicate that illegal arms are regularly being smuggled in through the Chittagong port. At least 37 illegal arms-smuggling syndicates are active in the region, a police report mentions.

An Arakan rebel, known by the pseudonym Selim, was arrested in Chittagong in mid-2000. In his confessional statement Selim admitted his involvement in gunrunning; “Arms from Thai and Burmese insurgents are smuggled into Bangladesh through Chittagong and the CHT. These are then sold out in the underground market,” he said.

Major General (retired) Ibrahim, a security expert, has more to add. “The sources and destinations of the smugglers are not clear. But this is an old story that Bangladesh is being used as a transit point for its geographical location,” the former army-man tells the United News of Bangladesh. “Because of the political instability over the years; and the government’s failure to give enough attention to the issue, the arms smugglers have gained enough courage,” Ibrahim says. For us the statement spells a national security nightmare.