Protests spread in Bangladesh amid arrests

Street protests spread in Bangladesh amid arrests over deadly building collapse

Associated Press
Bangladesh rescuers find 19 alive in building
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A Bangladeshi rescuer works to break through metal and concrete with a drill at the site of a building that collapsed Wednesday in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, April 26, 2013. More than two days after their factory collapsed on them, at least some garment workers were still alive in the corpse-littered debris Friday, pinned beneath tons of mangled metal and concrete. The death toll topped 300 on Friday and it remained unclear what the final grim number would be, as some victims are being pulled from the rubble alive. (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad)

SAVAR, Bangladesh (AP) -- Police in Bangladesh arrested two owners of a garment factory in a shoddily-constructed building that collapsed this week, killing at least 324 people, as protests spread to a second city Saturday with hundreds of people throwing stones and setting fire to vehicles.

Also Saturday, police detained for questioning two engineers who were involved in approving the design of the 8-story building. The wife of the building owner, who is on the run, was also detained in an attempt to force him to surrender.

At least 19 people were pulled out alive from under the tangled mess of concrete, bricks and steel on Saturday, more than 72 hours after the building came down on Wednesday in the worst tragedy to hit Bangladesh's massive, but poorly regulated, garment industry that supplies clothes to top Western brand names.

"There are many (survivors) still there," Subrata Sarker, a fire official, told The Associated Press, taking a break after emerging from the debris. Around him, soldiers, police and medical workers in lab coats swirled around in frenzied activity.

Mohammad Sarwar Hossain, another rescue worker said he saw 15 people still alive. "They can be rescued by today. We will be able to bring them out after we cut seven more Iron rods." 

Nearby, Abul Basar wept as he awaited news of his wife, who worked in one of the garment factories.

"My son says that his mother will come back some day, she must return, " he cried.

Rescue teams went in from seven entry points gouged into the rubble. Every once in a while a badly decomposed body would be brought out, covered in cloth and plastic, to a spot where ambulances were parked. Workers furiously sprayed air-fresheners on the bodies to cover the stench, leaving the air thick with the smell of death and cheap perfume.

The bodies were kept at the nearby Adharchandra High School grounds before being handed over to families. Many people milled around at the school, waving photos of their missing loved ones.

Military spokesman Shahinul Islam said 324 bodies have been recovered and 2,419 survivors accounted for, including 19 who were pulled out Saturday.

"We will continue our operation for more survivors as long as it is required. We are not thinking of wrapping up of our effort any time soon," he said.

Police in riot gear formed a cordon around the site to keep away hundreds of protesters who have been venting their anger at the situation since Wednesday. The protests have spread outside Savar, a Dhaka suburb where the collapse happened.

Police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and used sticks to disperse several hundred stone-throwing garment workers Saturday in Savar, a police official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. Clashes also erupted in other parts of Dhaka and in the southeastern city of Chittagong where hundreds of garment workers took to the streets and vandalized vehicles.

They also put up roadblocks, disrupting traffic.

Authorities shut down garment factories in Dhaka for fear of violence, which has persisted over demands that police arrest the owners of the factories and the building.

Junior Home Minister Shamsul Haque Tuku said police had arrested Bazlus Samad, managing director of New Wave Apparels Ltd., and Mahmudur Rahman Tapash, the company chairman.

He told reporters that police had also detained the wife of Mohammed Sohel Rana, the owner of the collapsed Rana Plaza building, for questioning. The top three floors of the eight-story building were illegally constructed.

Authorities are still searching for Rana, a local politician, who hasn't been seen publicly since the building collapsed. Negligence cases have been filed against him. Police in Bangladesh often detain relatives of missing suspects as a way to pressure them to surrender.

Dhaka police superintendent Habibur Rahman said Rana was a local leader of ruling Awami League's youth front. His arrest, and that of the factory owners, was ordered by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is also the Awami League leader.

Police said they detained for questioning two engineers working for the Savar municipality, Imtemam Hossain and Alam Ali. They did not say what role they played in approving the design of the building but it was clear that the arrests amounted to a widening crackdown. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

Fire service inspector Shafiqul Islam, who searched the building, said more than 40 survivors were found late Friday. Through holes in the structure, he gave them water and juice packs to combat dehydration in the stifling heat and humidity.

Search crews were cautiously using hammers, shovels and their bare hands. Many of the trapped workers were so badly hurt and weakened that they needed to be removed within a few hours, rescuers said.

There were fears that even if unhurt, the survivors could be badly dehydrated, with daytime temperatures soaring to 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) and about 24 degrees Celsius (75 degrees Fahrenheit) overnight. A brief thundershower accompanied by lightening slowed down rescue efforts on Saturday.

A garment manufacturers' group said the factories in the building employed 3,122 workers, but it was not clear how many were inside it when it collapsed.

Police say they ordered an evacuation of the building on Tuesday after cracks in Rana Plaza were found, but the factories ignored the order and were operating when it collapsed the next day. Video before the collapse shows cracks in walls, with apparent attempts at repair. It also shows columns missing chunks of concrete and police talking to building operators.

Officials said soon after the collapse that numerous construction regulations had been violated.

The disaster is the worst ever for the country's booming and powerful garment industry, surpassing a fire five months ago that killed 112 people and brought widespread pledges to improve worker-safety standards. Since then, very little has changed in Bangladesh, where low wages have made it a magnet for numerous global brands.

Bangladesh's garment industry was the third largest in the world in 2011, after China and Italy, having grown rapidly in the past decade. The country's minimum wage is the equivalent of about $38 a month.

Among the garment makers in the building were Phantom Apparels, Phantom Tac, Ether Tex, New Wave Style and New Wave Bottoms. Altogether, they produced several million shirts, pants and other garments a year.

The New Wave companies, according to their website, make clothing for several major North American and European retailers.

Britain's Primark acknowledged it was using a factory in Rana Plaza, but many other retailers distanced themselves from the disaster, saying they were not involved with the factories at the time of the collapse or had not recently ordered garments from them.

Wal-Mart said none of its clothing had been authorized to be made in the facility, but it is investigating whether there was any unauthorized production.

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AP writers Chris Blake in Dhaka, Stephen Wright in Bangkok, Kay Johnson in Mumbai, Matthew Pennington in Washington and AP Retail Writer Anne D'Innocenzio in New York contributed to this report.

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