Dhaka, April 19 (Benar News/Radio Free Asia): Bangladesh authorities have arrested “several” suspected members of a Rohingya rebel group near the country’s southeastern border with Myanmar, a senior Bangladeshi government official told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
The government source and a senior police officer spoke on condition of anonymity about Bangladeshi efforts to track whether Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents had infiltrated a massive population of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who are sheltering in Cox’s Bazar district.
“We have arrested several ARSA members, including some of them [who were] shooting at the Myanmar security forces,” said the government official, who declined to reveal how many suspected Rohingya rebels had been caught on Bangladeshi soil.
To date, Bangladeshi authorities have never officially announced the arrests of any ARSA suspects. Meanwhile, a Rohingya community leader at the region’s largest refugee camp told Benar that his team had captured 15 suspected ARSA members in January and February and turned them over to police.
According to other Rohingya community leaders, police arrested a 26-year-old ARSA member carrying a sub-machine gun and ammunition at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar on April 9.
Abul Khair, a police officer assigned to the case, said police had questioned suspect Md. Shahed extensively and were investigating allegations that Shahed had been filmed with other men undergoing ARSA military training in a video posted on YouTube.
“He is not an ordinary criminal. I do not know whether he belongs to ARSA or any other group,” Khair told BenarNews.
According to the policeman, the suspect claimed that one of his friends “gave him bullets to carry.”
‘Have not handed them over to Myanmar’
Myanmar’s government blamed ARSA insurgents for deadly coordinated attacks on army and police outposts in Rakhine state in August 2017. These provoked a brutal crackdown by government security forces that drove at least 687,000 Rohingya to seek shelter in neighboring Bangladesh, according to the latest estimates from the United Nations.
The suspects who were caught had entered Bangladesh with the unprecedented influx of refugees from Myanmar, according to the government official.
“No, we have not handed them over to Myanmar,” he said, adding there was a risk with expelling the suspects back to Myanmar.
“If we do so, the common refugees would also get worried about their return to Myanmar. Then the whole repatriation process would be in jeopardy,” the official said, referring to a bilateral deal struck between Bangladesh and Myanmar last November to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees to Rakhine state.
But, he went on, “we must not allow ARSA or any militant group to harm Myanmar.”
The senior police officer, who is stationed in Cox’s Bazar, echoed the official’s concern.
“[W]e will in no way allow ARSA to operate from Bangladesh soil. We have at least seven security agencies keeping a track on possible ARSA activities in the refugee camps,” the officer told BenarNews.
In November, Bangladeshi Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said authorities had launched security sweeps of the refugee camps, but these netted no suspects after Myanmar’s government had handed Dhaka a list of hundreds of alleged ARSA insurgents believed to be hiding out in southeastern Bangladesh.
In late October during the sweeps, Bangladesh’s counter-terrorist Rapid Action Battalion arrested two Rohingya men with guns and bullets at the Kutupalong camp – the largest of the refugee shelters – but a RAB official said then that the suspects were likely not members of ARSA.
Arrests of ARSA suspects
Following Md. Shahed’s arrest last week, Rohingya community leaders claimed in interviews with BenarNews that he had appeared in a recent online video that showed ARSA recruits being trained by the insurgent group’s leader, Ataullah Abu Ammar Jununi.
“In the YouTube video … Shahed is seen clad in a blue shirt,” claimed Jafar Alam, a Rohingya leader at the Kutupalong camp who said he had helped Bangladeshi police nab Shahed.
Alam is one of a few hundred Rohingya refugees who help patrol the sprawling and overcrowded refugee camps after dark to “help maintain law and order.”
“Shahed was carrying a knife when I found him wandering around at 4 a.m. He then tried to attack me. I raised an alarm, after which other camp residents came to my help and subdued him,” Alam told BenarNews.
Zahid Hossain, another community leader, confirmed that a Rohingya man suspected of being involved with militants was caught and handed over to police on April 9.
“Shahed belongs to an armed group led by Abdul Hakim (alias Hakim Dakat), who was once an ARSA member,” Hossain told BenarNews.
Md. Selim, a fellow refugee leader, said his team had recently captured more than a dozen ARSA suspects and transferred them to police custody.
“ARSA has been active in the camps. Between January and February, we the community people, in three separate efforts, caught 15 ARSA members and handed them over to the police,” Selim said.
Police rejected his claim.
But, according to BenarNews interviews with more than 12 Rohingya community leaders in Cox’s Bazar, ARSA members are heavily concentrated in the Balukhali refugee camp in the district.
“ARSA has been divided into two factions: one is led by Ataullah while the other group is led by Abdul Hakim, who lives in the Teknaf sub-district of Cox’s Bazar,” one Rohingya leader told BenarNews on condition of anonymity