30. Telegram From the Embassy in Bangladesh to the Department of State1

5681. CINCPAC for POLAD. Subject: The Mutiny.

Summary: The mutiny in the midst of the hijacking episode has left many questions unanswered so far. The motives of the mutineers and the amount of coordination among them and those in Bogra and Chittagong are in doubt.2 The role, if any, of the JSD is not certain. So far unity has been displayed by the highest levels of the MLA as all appear to support Zia and are prepared to work with him. The future [Page 90] will depend on this unity and on a strong position taken by Zia and his associates. End summary.

1. The drama associated with the hijacking of a JAL aircraft to Dacca was at a temporary lull when the exchanges of Japanese prisoners for hostages and money had been completed sometime after midnight on Sunday, October 2. The radio exchanges between the tower and the aircraft were minimal and it was expected that the aircraft and the remaining hostages would leave Dacca for an unknown destination shortly after sunup. Suddenly, a new factor interjected itself into the hijacking scenario and into the political situation in Bangladesh. Shooting had begun in the adjacent cantonment at about 3 a.m. and shortly after it spread to BAF officers mess across the roadway from the airport and finally into the control tower itself as Air Force personnel apparently attempted to wipe out the senior officers of the BAF who were on duty there in connection with the hijacking.

2. There are very many factors which at this time are still unknown. The usual pattern of questions for journalists of who, what, where, when, how and why simply do not have clear cut answers on the basis of information presently available to us from our sources and from consultation with several diplomatic colleagues. Even the sequence of events is hard to establish with certainty.

3. From the two principal targets (the BAF officers mess and the tower) it seems that higher ranking BAF officers including Air Vice Marshal Mahmood were the targets of the mutineers. There have been reports that personnel from other services were also involved including a signal unit stationed at Savar, but the BAF mutineers were the most prominent. These were successful in killing eleven BAF officers, according to an official statement, two of whom were Group Captains and one a Wing Commander (and of these two were in BAF Intelligence and thus on duty at the tower). Mahmood himself escaped injury, according to his wife “miraculously”. It is reported also that the attackers were from the BAF Ground Defense Unit and that they had ransacked the unit weapons storage area at about 1 a.m. and shortly afterward began firing. The earliest an American heard the firing in the cantonment from the nearby Gulshan residential area was shortly after 3 a.m. There were perhaps some killings in the cantonment itself as the official announcement has said that ten soldiers were killed although names and locations of their deaths have not been given.

4. At 0555 Radio Bangladesh broadcast a statement which proclaimed a revolution had been successful and that the “leader” would soon address the nation. (We now have an exact text which is being [Page 91] sent by septel.)3 Five minutes later the station began its regular programming for the day with a Quranic recitation and no further mention of the revolution or its leader was made. One of the mutineer groups apparently infiltrated the main broadcasting studio and transmitter next to the Hotel Intercontinental and put the message out on the already activated transmitter.

5. The 9th Infantry Division, commanded by Major General Mir Shawkat Ali, moved quickly to restore order. Ninth Division troops and police retook the radio station in a brief firefight near the Intercontinental. Troops came to the airport both from the terminal side (west) and across the runway from the north and east. The area was reasonably secure before seven a.m. Sporadic firing continued in the cantonment for several hours after that.

6. During the firing the task of negotiating from the tower was taken over by a Foreign Ministry official (S.A. Jalal from the American Directorate), and Mahmood was not heard from again as long as the plane was in Dacca. We believe he and other senior officers went into hiding. The JRA hijackers said that they wished to drop off more hostages and leave as soon as possible. The tower stated that there “had been something like a coup d’etat” but that it was internal and not in any way directed at them. It also said that under the circumstances further releases would have to be delayed. Several hostages released later said that the firing could be heard clearly in the hijacked aircraft. Their initial reaction was that this was a commando raid against the plane.4

7. With the immediate threat from the mutineers cleared up by mid-morning, President Zia addressed the nation in a very short speech at 1145. He said that “misdirected personnel” had caused the trouble but that the unified forces of Army, Navy, Air Force, Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) and police had thwarted their attempt to overthrow the government. He appealed for unity and said measures would be taken against those who had acted against the nation.

8. It seemed clear even at that time that in the moment of danger, all of the highest levels of the BDG had acted in concert. Two of the frequently rumored rivals of Zia, Shawkat and Major General Golam [Page 92] Dastagir (Director General, BDR), used their commands in support of the regime. On October 3, a meeting was held and a picture published in the press of the participants who included all of the leaders: Zia, Mahmood, Rear Admiral Khan, Shawkat and Dastagir among them.

9. Security measures have been taken including much more rigid control on entry to military installations, an earlier curfew, searches of vehicles for weapons and personnel, and stronger guards on key personnel. However, the atmosphere in Dacca is more relaxed than it was in the first hours after the mutiny.

10. While the preceding gives an outline of the events so far as we know them there are still many unanswered questions. In addition to the Air Force and signal unit, there are reports of some Army, possibly some BDR and some civilians (including some masquerading as military or BDR) being involved. The leadership of the group is also unclear as is the level, if any, of coordination (a) between units in Dacca and (b) between the incident a few days earlier at Bogra as well as the one we have heard about in Chittagong, also on October 2. (The latter incident was apparently small and quickly suppressed.)

11. The goals of the mutineers are also a mystery. We (and the BDG itself) have known that there were grievances within the Army over pay, housing and other amenities. The recent pay increase did not satisfy the expectations of the sepoys and their equivalents in the other services. The Bogra incident is reported to have been over these grievances and several Army officers were killed there. Military sources state that the goal was not repeat not the overthrow of the regime but to set officers and enlisted men against each other.

The radio broadcast, however, took a different line and said a revolution had been successful. It seems logical that the broadcast and the mutiny were part of the same package but that the former banked on the success of the latter.

12. In the realm of speculation, therefore, it is possible that the authors of the radio message counted upon a much wider uprising than actually occurred, one which could have displaced the Zia regime. There seems to have been no direct attack on Zia himself, surely the person who would have been hit if a change in government were the immediate goal. An explanation may thus be that the BAF mutineers were the only ones who tried fully to carry out their mission and the others either (a) failed, (b) chickened out, or (c) were counted upon prematurely or incorrectly.

13. The identity of broadcasters themselves is not certain. Also if a number of units were expected to work together some coordination was necessary. The BDG has already, privately, fingered the underground wing of Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) for this role and had additionally suggested that a “foreign power” might be involved. The [Page 93] “foreign power” is presumably India. However, if both India and the JSD were acting together it would be one of the strangest combinations in Bangladeshi history. The JSD is strongly anti-Indian and elements associated with it demonstrated this by trying to kill the Indian High Commissioner in December, 1975.

14. Although the foreign connection seems unlikely (despite the glee with which AIR reported the events and the exaggerations of the Calcutta press), the JSD participation (or leadership) is not improbable. Given to rash acts, the underground wing could well have attempted to do something like this. It is felt that the JSD has some support in the military (the party claimed in November, 1975, to have put Zia in office). But it also draws support from students and the Dacca University campus was quiet all day Sunday.

15. The prospects for Bangladesh following the events of the mutiny depend very much on how Zia and his associates play it. If they continue the unity which apparently is present now and at the same time refuse to accede to demands from the sepoy level which they think are beyond the means of Bangladesh they may emerge stronger than they were before the incident. The meeting of Oct. 3 implied that a tough line would be taken. Whether it will and whether the necessary unity will be maintained remains to be seen.

16. The international image of Bangladesh has no doubt been tarnished. It can be seen as a country which, when it does not have natural disasters, seems to be able to manufacture human ones. However, this, too, could be overcome in time by a demonstration of strength by Zia and his colleagues, but given the past track record, the job will be difficult.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770361–0929. Confidential; Immediate. Sent for information to Colombo, Islamabad, Kathmandu, New Delhi, Calcutta, CINCPAC, and DIA.
  2. Telegram 5592 from Dacca, October 2, reported that according to a Group Captain in the Bangladeshi Air Force, “there was an incident in Chittagong just after midnight October 2 in which troops fired rifles. Incident was apparently contained quickly. It is not known whether both Dacca and Chittagong incidents were coordinated to follow earlier Bogra incident. In Bogra, two officers were killed by sepoys.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770359–0671)
  3. Telegram 5673 from Dacca, October 4, transmitted the texts of the initial announcement and the subsequent short radio address by the coup leader, who announced a revolution and called for support. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770362–1012)
  4. On October 2, the hijackers flew from Dacca to Kuwait, where they released seven hostages. From there the hijackers flew to Damascus, freeing ten hostages, and finally to Algiers, where they released the remaining 19 hostages and surrendered to Algerian security forces. (“Japanese Hijackers Free Hostages and Give Themselves Up in Algiers,” New York Times, October 4, 1977, p. 1)