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October 17, 2001
1825 IST

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Khaleda promises to protect Durga Puja festivities

Ershadul Huq in Dhaka

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh has said that troops will be deployed if necessary to ensure that the Hindu community's biggest festival, Durga Puja, which begins next week, passes off peacefully.

She said personnel of the Bangladesh Rifles, which guards the country's frontiers, would be called in if needed.

Khaleda's instruction came in the wake of the reported vandalism of Durga Puja venues and attacks on Hindus and their property across the country.

The apex body of festival organisers had earlier resolved to celebrate Durga Puja in a subdued manner to protest against the atrocities on Hindus before and after the October 1 general election, which Khaleda's Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allies won. Most Hindus traditionally support the BNP's rival, the Awami League.

Khaleda's directive came after a long meeting with Cabinet Secretary Akbar Ali Khan, who briefed her about the situation in the country.

Khaleda also sanctioned taka 4 million from her relief fund for the celebration of Durga Puja. She told Khan that the government stood ready to provide more funds to the Hindu community if necessary.

Reports came in from Mymensingh in the north and several other parts of the country about Durga Puja venues being attacked and idols being damaged.

Former prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, who heads the Awami League, asked scores of people, mostly students, who went on a hunger strike at the central Shaheed Minar (Martyrs' Monument) in Dhaka to protest against the torture of Hindus, to resist the attacks. She alleged that workers of the BNP and its radical ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, were responsible for the atrocities.

Sheikh Hasina told the protesters that the new government does not understand the language of hunger strikes. "Stand on your feet, strike back," she exhorted.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Hindu-Bouddha-Christian Oikya Parishad, comprising representatives of the Hindu, Buddhist and Christian communities, formed a human chain in Chittagong on Tuesday to protest against the attacks on minorities.

Home Minister Altaf Hossain Chowdhury, however, said he felt accounts of the attacks in the press were exaggerated.

The European Commission, meanwhile, expressed concern at the repression of Hindus following the accounts of some non-governmental organisations, press reports and reports collected from its own source.

The EC's head of delegation ambassador in Bangladesh, Antonio de Souza Menenzes, has urged the new government to take action against those attacking the minorities. "Many NGOs and other organisations had contacted the EC expressing their concern over the current level of violence, especially against the minority people," he said in a statement.

The EC, he added, had raised the matter with BNP leaders at a recent meeting and requested them to restrain party workers from attacking religious minorities. "But it is still continuing," he rued.

Indo-Asian News Service

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