| Bangladesh minister Lutfozzaman Babar holds a seized rocket launcher. (AFP)
April 2: A huge cache of AK-47 rifles and other firearms was unearthed near the Bangladeshi port city of Chittagong today, making India sit up and wonder whether it was supposed to be the final destination of the deadly consignment.
The seized arsenal included 10,000 weapons, 5,000 grenades and 300,000 rounds of ammunition. The arms were found buried in wooden boxes and jute sacks meant for sugar and salt.
Ten trucks needed to be summoned to haul the largest-ever such catch in Bangladesh to a nearby police station for a preliminary count.
The weapons are believed to be Chinese-made, with Myanmar their probable source. However, it was not immediately clear if they were to be used in Bangladesh or shipped to India’s Northeast where several insurgent groups are active.
Delhi’s intelligence sources believe the rebel groups use Chittagong and the Chittagong Hill Tracts that border India and Myanmar to bring in illegal arms, but Dhaka denies this. Bangladesh has persistently denied the presence of any armed militant group on its soil and asserts it does not harbour any militants from outside its borders.
A highly-placed Indian intelligence official said that after Bhutan’s crackdown on militant outfits, the insurgents, including Ulfa, have been regrouping in Bangladesh and planning to strike in the run-up to the elections.
The official did not rule out the possibility of the arms being meant for Northeast rebels, saying that “going by the timing of the shipment, there is room to believe that they could be for the Ulfa or the National Democratic Front of Boroland (another outfit active in Assam)”. Militant groups operating in Tripura are also on the list of suspects, he added.
However, Bangladesh’s state minister for home affairs Lutfozzaman Babar said he believed the arms were meant for “creating instability in the country”.
After inspecting a part of the haul kept at a parade ground near local Dampara police station, the minister said: “It’s a part of a big conspiracy. In the current state of affairs, I believe the weapons have been smuggled to be used in the country.”
The Bangladesh minister did not rule out the involvement of the main Opposition Awami League, which has launched a number of strikes and demonstrations to force Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia to quit by April 30 and pave the way for early elections.
Khaleda has rejected their demands and said she will serve a full five-year term — elections are not due until October 2006.
The Opposition has accused the government of failing to curb rising crime and increase in the prices of essential goods.
The Awami League-led Opposition has planned new general strikes on Wednesday and Thursday and has vowed to organise more such protests this month.
The latest cache of arms has been seized even as police are investigating the recovery of live rifle ammunition and explosives in Dhaka and the northern Bogra district last year. The police had found boxes containing at least 100,000 rifle bullets in Bogra and later came across two AK-47 rifles abandoned in a Dhaka house.
Mahmudur Rahman, assistant commissioner of Chittagong metropolitan police, said: “Police saw some people unloading large boxes from two boats on the bank of river Karnafuly very early today.” The police seized about 10 truckloads of weapons from the river bank but could not immediately arrest anyone, said the police official.
“We have found 100 cartons of weapons in each truck laden with general commodities,” senior police officer Abdullah Baki said. Each carton contained assault rifles, rocket launchers and shells, grenades and ammunition, he added.
Baki said most of the cartons bore the label “OTY-4-RGS-G/W” and “Made in China”.
Rahman said the group fled in boats and the police gave chase for several hours only to find that the crew had already jumped overboard and escaped. The police said they later detained five suspects from the river bank.