- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 5, 2003

NEW DELHI, Feb. 5 (UPI) — The India-Bangladesh border remained tense Wednesday over what New Delhi is calling the deportation of illegal immigrants and Dhaka regards as the expulsion of Indian Muslims.

"There are times when things go out of control and in this particular case, things have unfortunately gone beyond control," Defense Minister George Fernandes said in the southern city of Bangalore Wednesday.

At issue is the expulsion of 213 Bengalis whom India regards as illegal Bangladeshi migrants. India's eastern West Bengal state shares a common border and language with Bangladesh, but India's Bengalis are predominantly Hindu while most Bangladeshis are Muslim.

Bangladesh says India has tried to forcibly expel Bengali-speaking Muslims from West Bengal more than 30 times in the past two weeks.

"We will do everything to prevent further such attempts," Bangladesh Home Secretary Omar Farooq told reporters in Dhaka.

Bangladeshi border guards have turned back the deportees who are now stranded in the no-man's land between the two countries. Most of those expelled are poor snake charmers and their families who are living in makeshift tents in cold and wet conditions.

India said it will ensure that those stranded were not deprived of the basic necessities.

"We have always rushed aid and humanitarian services when the need arises and will not back out this time as well," Fernandes said.

Dhaka says India is violating international law, a charge New Delhi strongly denies, saying it has documentary evidence that those deported were Bangladeshis. The two countries have an agreement that says if people are detained while crossing the border, they will be immediately accepted by the country to which they belong.

Troops on either side of the border have been on high alert since India announced last month it would deport an estimated 20 million illegal Bangladeshi refugees from its territories. Bangladesh has said the two sides have exchanged gunfire twice in the past two weeks, but India says there has been no firing.

"There is tension at the border," Fernandes said. "It is unfortunate and additional personnel have been deployed from the BSF near the no man's land where the migrants are stranded."

The BSF is India Border Security Force.

Relations between the two neighbors have been traditionally good as India helped Bangladesh in its war of independence from Pakistan in 1971. Ties have deteriorated in the past year after the election of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia who leads her Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Islamist Jamat-e-Islam in the ruling coalition. India is led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist group. Most of the disputes have been related to the border.

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