The Bangladesh army said Thursday it had foiled a plot last month by some "religiously fanatic" Islamist officers to overthrow the elected government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
"We have unearthed a heinous conspiracy to overthrow the democratic government through the army," army spokesman Brigadier General Masud Razzaq said in a written statement.
"The attempt has been thwarted with the whole-hearted efforts of army soldiers," the statement said, adding that the plot had been fomented by Bangladeshi expatriates in touch with "religiously fanatic army officers".
Hasina's government, which came to power in early 2009, made changes in June last year to bolster the secular character of the Bangladesh constitution, although Islam was retained as the state religion.
The move sparked a series of angry protests by Islamic activists in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, one of the world's poorest countries with a long history of coups and counter-coups.
Razzaq told local media that the plot involved up to 16 Islamist officers, both active and retired, raising fears about the prevalence of hardliners in the upper ranks of the 140,000-strong military.
Two retired officers including a colonel have been arrested and will be presented before a court of inquiry set up on December 28, while an alleged "co-planner" called Major Syed Ziaul Haq, a serving officer, is on the run.
Syed Ashraful Islam, the spokesman of the ruling Awami League party and an influential minister, said anyone found guilty would be handed "exemplary" punishment.
"There is no room for conspiracy in the army. Those who are involved in such conspiracy will be given exemplary punishment," he told reporters.
Giving details about the alleged plot, Razzaq said that Ziaul had circulated emails to different serving officers detailing a plan to overthrow the government on January 9-10.
The outlawed Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir, banned in Bangladesh in 2009 after it was linked to a car bomb on a politician, was accused of helping to circulate the messages.
There were rumours online late last month about a foiled coup attempt after the nation's main opposition leader Khaleda Zia accused the government of "incidences of disappearances" in the army.
The army hit back, terming the allegations "provocative and misleading".
Dhaka University professor Imtiaz Ahmed, a security expert, told AFP that "we've been hearing the rumour of a possible coup for the last couple of weeks. It appears that they handled the situation quite well."
He said it was important the armed forces "seriously dig into the matter as to how much the Islamists were involved, in which capacity and how big was the penetration."
Bangladesh has a history of bloodshed and political violence since gaining independence in 1971.
The country's first president was assassinated during his overthrow by the army in 1975 and Bangladesh was run by the military dictator again from 1982 to 1990.
Democracy was restored in 1991, but street battles between Zia and Hasina's supporters prompted the army to step in again in January 2007.
The government of Hasina, who came to power in 2009, was hit by a military rebellion later that year when 57 army officers were killed by renegade border guards.
The spokesman said the army has set up a court of inquiry on December 28 to try the alleged coup planners.© ANP/AFP