March 28, 1971: In Dacca, troops use artillery to halt revolt

A report titled ‘In Dacca, troops use artillery to halt revolt’ by Sydney H. Schanberg was published in New York Times



Sydney H. Schanberg in New York Times, March 28, 1971


Civilians Fired on sections of Dacca are set ablaze



Mr. Schanberg was one of 35 foreign newsmen expelled Saturday morning from Last Pakistan. He cabled this dispatch from Bombay, India.


The Pakistan Army is using artillery and heavy machine guns against unarmed East Pakistani civilians to crush the movement for autonomy in this province of 75-million people.


The attack began late Thursday night without warning. West Pakistani soldiers, who predominate in the army, moved into the streets of Dacca, the provincial capital, to besiege the strongholds of the independence movement, such as the university.


There was no way of knowing how many civilians had been killed or wounded. Neither was any information available on what was happening in the rest of the province, although there had been reports before the Dacca attack of clashes between civilians and West Pakistani soldiers in the interior.


From the hotel, which is in North Dacca, huge fires could be seen in various parts of the city, including the university area and the barracks of the East Pakistan Rifles, a para-military force made up of Bengalis, the predominant people of East Pakistan.


Some fires were still burning and sporadic shooting was continuing early this morning when the 35 foreign newsmen were expelled from Dacca.


My God, my God,” said a Pakistani student watching from a hotel window, trying to keep back tears, “they’re killing them. They’re slaughtering them.”


Homes set afire


On the ride to the airport in a guarded convoy of military trucks, the news­men saw troops setting fire to the thatched-roof houses of poor Bengalis who live along the road and who are some of the stanchest supporters of the self-rule movement.


When the military action began on Thursday night, soldiers, shouting victory slogans, set ablaze large areas in many parts of Dacca after first shooting into the buildings with automatic rifles, machine guns and recoilless rifles.


When the foreign newsmen, all of whom were staying at the Intercontinental Hotel tried to go outside to find out what was happening, they were forced back in by a heavily reinforced army guard and told they would be shot if they tried to step out of the building.


The fire began to increase in the vicinity of the hotel and at I A.M. it seemed to become very heavy all over the city.


At 1-25 A.M. the phones at the hotel went dead, shut down by order of the military guard outside. The lights on the telegraph office tower went out at about the same time. Heavy automatic-weapons fire could be heard in the university area and other districts.


Attack at Shopping Bazaar


At about 2-15 A.M. a jeep with a mounted machine gun drove by the front of the

turned left on Mymensingh Road and stopped in front of a shopping bazaar with its trained on the second floor windows. A dozen soldiers on foot joined those on the jeep, one group carrying some kind of rocket piece.


From the seond floor suddenly came cries of “Bengalis, united!- and soldiers opened fire with the machine gun, spraying the building indiscriminately The soldiers then started moving down an alley adjacent to the bazaar, firing into and then overturning cars that were blocking the alley. The scene was lit by the soldiers’ flashlights, and to the newsmen watching from ‘the 10th floor of the Intercontinental, it was an incredible drama.


As the soldiers were firing down the alley, a group of about 15 or 20 young Bengalis started along the road toward them, from about 200 yards off. They were shouting in defiance at the soldiers, but seemed unarmed and their hands appeared empty.


The machine gun on the jeep swung around toward them and opened fire. Soldiers with automatic rifles joined in. The Bengalis youths scattered into the shadows on both sides of the road. It was impossible to tell whether any hed been wounded or killed.


The soldiers then turned their attention back to the alley. They set a spare parts garage on fire and then moved on to what was apparently their main objective the office and press of the People, an English-language daily paper that had strongly supported Sheik Mujib and ridiculed the army.


Shouting in Urdu, the language of West Pakistan, the soldiers warned any persons inside that unless they surrendered they would be shot. There was no answer and no one emerged. The troops then fired a rocket into the building and followed this with small arms fire and machine-guns bursts. Then they set fire to the building and began smashing the press and other equipment.


Moving farther along, they set ablaze all the shops and shacks behind the bazaar and soon the flames were climbing high above the two-storey building.


Shortly after 4 A.M. the shouting eased somewhat, but artillery rounds machine-gun bursts could be heard occasionally. Tracer bullets from a long way off flew by the hotel.

At 4-45 A.M., another big fire blazed, in the direction of the East Pakistan Rifles headquarters.


At 5-45, in the hazy light of dawn six Chinese-made T-51 light tanks soldiers riding on them rumbled in to the city and began patrolling main thorughfares.


The intermittent firing and occasional artillery bursts continued through yesterday and early today, right up to the time the newsmen were expelled.


Helicopters wheeled overhead yesterday morning, apparently on reconnaissnace. Four helicopters given to Pakistan by Saudi Arabia for relief work after last November’s cyclone and tidal wave in East Pakistan were reported being used for the military operation in the province.


Yahya in West Pakistan


At 7 A.M. the Dacca radio, which had been taken over by the army, announced that President Agha Mahammad Yahya Khan had arrived back in West Pakistan and would address the nation at 8 P.M.


Shortly after 8 A.M., a black 1959 Chevrolet with an armed escort of troops in jeeps and trucks pulled up in front of the hotel. This convoy was to take Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his party to the airport to fly back to West Pakistan.


Mr. Bhutto, the dominant political leader of West Pakistan, opposed Sheik Mujib’s demands for East Pakistan autonomy.


It is generally accepted that his opposition, supported or engineered by the army and business establishment in West Pakistan, was what forced the crisis. Mr. Bhutto, who is aware that the Bengalis largely blame him for their present troubles, came into the lobby flanked by civilian and army bodyguards with automatic weapons. He looked frightened and brushed off all newsmen’s questions with, ” I have no comment to make. ”


At 10 A.M. the radio announced the new martial orders.


Every time newsmen in the hotel asked officers for information, they were rebuffed. All attempts to reach diplomatic missions failed. In one confrontation, a captain grew enraged at a group of newsmen who had walked out the front door to talk to him. He ordered them back into the building and, to their retreating backs, he shouted, ” I can handle you. If I can kill my own people, I can kill you. ”


Crisis Reported Controlled


Shortly afterward, the military government sent word to the hotel that foreign newsmen must be ready to leave by 6-15 P.M. The newsmen packed and paid their bills, but it was 8:20, just after President Yahya’s speech, before their convoy of five trucks with soldiers in front and back, left for the airport.


Just before leaving, the lieutenant colonel in charge was asked by a newsman why the foreign press had to leave. ” We want you to leave because it would be too dangerous for you, ” he said. ” It will be too bloody. ” All the hotel employees and other foreigners in the hotel believed that once the newsmen left, carnage would begin.


“This isn’t going to be hotel,” said a hotel official, “it is going to be bloody hospital. ”


At the airport, with firing going on in the distance, the newsmen’s luggage was rigidly checked and some television film, particularly that of the British Broad casting Corporation, was confiscated.



March 28, 1971)



Source: Bangladesh Documents, vol – I, p. 380-382