Hasina in line of fire of militant extremists

Election candidate continues campaign trail with enhanced security after speculation that a six-member suicide squad ha targeted her.

Bangladeshi former prime minister and the president of the Awami League Sheikh Hasina waves at her supporters.
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KOLKATA // // Bangladesh has stepped up security around Sheikh Hasina, a former prime minister whose party is favoured to win elections Monday, after the Indian media reported that Islamic extremists were planning to assassinate her. Quoting unnamed Indian intelligence sources, India's CNN-IBN news channel warned last week that a six-member suicide squad had been assigned to kill Ms Hasina, known for promoting secular policies. The broadcaster, a sister channel of CNN International, said the squad - part of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami ? Bangladesh [HuJI-B] group - had undergone special training for the mission in Satkhira, a district on the border with India, under the command of a former Pakistani special forces officer. The channel also reported that the HuJI-B secretary general, Imtiaz Abdul Quddus, briefed the squad about their mission, at the end of their two-month training. A spokesman for India's High Commission in Bangladesh, Deepak Mittal, said he was not aware of any such Indian intelligence and had no official comment on the issue. Supporters in Ms Hasina's Awami League had voiced concern about the possibility of an attack, but in a hastily called press conference on Sunday, Major Gen M A Matin, Bangladesh's home affairs adviser, said it was unlikely the threat would be carried out. "There's no possibility of an attack on Sheikh Hasina. We've taken the highest security measures. God willing, there will be no attack." Noor Mohammed, the inspector general of Bangladesh police, said security around Ms Hasina had already been tightened and that the Indian TV report was being investigated. "We have taken the threat very seriously and the vigil around the country has been intensified," Mr Mohammed said. In fact, the Special Security Force, which provides security for politicians, diplomats and other important people, has already provided a personal team for Ms Hasina since last month. As soon as it was announced that Ms Hasina planned to fight the elections, intelligence agencies reported that extremists from HuJI-B and JMB (Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh) could target Ms Hasina, said Syed Ashraful Islam, a spokesman for Ms Hasina's party. Ms Hasina is known for her secular credentials and is immensely popular among country's non-Muslim minorities, but is unpopular among Islamic political and religious groups, including HuJI-B, which was formed in Bangladesh in 1992 under the ideological guidance of Osama bin Laden. She has pledged to ban communalism in national politics and proposed a South Asian task force to combat religious militancy, should she win office. H T Imam, the co-chair of the Awami League's election steering committee, said Islamic extremists were attempting not to kill just a popular leader, but trying to destabilise the whole country. "Those extremist forces are also trying to foil the election and do not want a democratically elected government to be in power," Mr Imam said. Last week, Bangladesh's army-backed caretaker government lifted a state of emergency that had been in place for nearly two years. The army took control of the country in Jan 2007 after months of violent street protests by supporters of the Awami League and those of the party of her political rival, Khaleda Zia. Both women have ruled the country at one time or another over the past 15 years. The protests came amid conflict over election reform, and caused the postponement of elections due that month and the imposition of a state of emergency. During the state of emergency - the longest in the history of any South Asian country - the army tried to send Ms Hasina and Ms Zia into exile. Both leaders and hundreds of their supporters were also jailed on corruption charges, as the army hoped it would lead to the emergence of new political parties. But, they have since been released and are in the process of contesting next week's elections in which Ms Hasina's alliance has been tipped as the favourite to win. Ms Hasina, 63, said she was not disturbed by the latest threat. "They know that we are going to win the elections. So, standing at the door of defeat, those cowards are planning to kill me. I have lost my father, my relatives and many others to such cowardly attacks. I have nothing more to lose? for a good prosperous future of Bangladesh I am ready to lay down my life," she said. In Aug 2004, Ms Hasina was injured when an explosion killed 24 people and injured 400 as she addressed 25,000 supporters at an opposition rally in downtown Dhaka. As bodyguards whisked her into her bulletproof vehicle, gunmen peppered the SUV with bullets. At the time, South Asian experts on terrorism said the attack could be the work of HuJI-B. An attempt by the group in 2001 to kill Ms Hasina, then prime minister, failed when a powerful explosive device was discovered an hour before she was to address a public meeting. HuJI-B, which in 1992 announced its aim was to bring Bangladesh under Sharia and make it an Islamic state, has links with the Islamic Aikyo Jot [Islamic Unity Alliance]- a political ally of Ms Zia's Bangladesh National Party, the US state department reported some years ago before listing HuJI as a terrorist organisation. Ms Hasina's father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who became Bangladesh's first prime minister and was named father of the nation was assassinated by disgruntled military officers in a 1975 coup, along with his wife, three sons and 16 other family members. @Email:aziz@thenational.ae