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Concerns Raised About Deaths of Bangladesh Border Guards

Celebrations in Bangladesh are muted Thursday on the 38th anniversary of the country's independence - a month after a massacre of army officers by mutinous border guards. Subsequent deaths of paramilitary soldiers in custody are raising concern about human-rights violations.

On Independence Day, the government has warned of possible attacks by militants. The traditional Independence Day military parade was canceled, in wake of the mutiny a month ago by borders guards in which 75 people died, mostly army officers.

The massacre - blamed on the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles - has left the country in a state of shock. Hundreds of the border guards remain in hiding, amid a government vow to swiftly punish those responsible for the killings.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch is expressing concern about the treatment of suspects in military custody. It says the Bangladesh army has a reputation for torture. The group's South Asia researcher, Meenkashi Ganguly, in Mumbai, says the raw emotions are understandable among army soldiers, but that should not be an excuse to take revenge on the border guards.

"Certainly they're feeling victimized," said Ganguly. "The likelihood of them dispensing retribution and summary punishment is high. The likelihood of them torturing these people - not just for information, but just because they want to punish them - is also very, very high."

Bangladeshi media say, since the February massacre, nine border guards have died under suspicious circumstances. Officials say most either committed suicide or suffered heart attacks.

Meenkashi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch says the group is receiving information casting doubt on the official explanations.

"A series of suspicious deaths in the barracks is of grave concern. We've been told by caregivers - medical doctors and nurses in the hospitals - they have seen clear signs of torture in people who have been brought in a bad condition after they've been tortured," said Ganguly. "We have every reason to believe there is torture going on in those barracks."

Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, declared independence on March 26 1971. A nine-month war ensued, killing many people and displacing millions of others, before Pakistani troops surrendered to Bangladeshi and Indian forces.

Since then, the Muslim majority nation of 150 million people has struggled to overcome endemic poverty and a legacy of coups and other violent attempts to oust successive governments.

Current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina returned to power this year, following democratic elections in late December. She has called the lethal mutiny by the border guards a pre-planned conspiracy to try to sabotage her agenda to make Bangladesh a stable secular democracy.