Bangladesh defends decision to snub foreign aid as anger grows

DHAKA (AFP) - Bangladesh on Tuesday defended its decision to snub foreign aid after the collapse of a factory complex as anger flared at the recovery operation and towards the building's owner when he appeared in court.

With the death toll from the country's worst ever industrial disaster now standing at 382, Western retailers offered compensation to the victims of last Wednesday's tragedy on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka.

The government announced plans for another blitz of inspections after it came under pressure from Western brand names for a "credible" safety regime in an industry that has a shocking record of disasters.

While foreign aid has been a regular feature of rescue efforts following other large-scale disasters, the Bangladeshi government decided it could handle the situation on its own.

"The need for immediate foreign assistance was not felt because our rescue operation has been sufficient and exemplary," Home Secretary Mustak Ahmed told AFP, adding that the government was "grateful" for the offers from Britain among others.

Although the exact number of people still missing is not known, there were around 3,000 workers on shift at the time of the disaster and more than 2,400 were rescued from the ruins.

"Our army, firefighters, police and volunteers did a very good job. We also have enough equipment," Mr Ahmed added.

However, distraught relatives who have stayed at the site of the disaster for news were becoming increasingly critical of the recovery operation, fearing that the bodies of their loved ones could be damaged.

Rescuers began using heavy lifting equipment, including cranes, on Monday for the first time after determining that there was little chance of finding anyone else alive in the tangle of concrete.

"Our target is to complete the rescue work as fast as possible," armed forces spokesman Shahinul Islam told AFP. "But we're doing things carefully.

Some dead bodies could still be seen under the rubble." But Mr Yunus Khan, who was among a group of around 100 people still awaiting news at the site, told reporters that he feared "the use of this heavy equipment will dash any chances of recovering the bodies".

"The equipment will flatten the bodies," he said. "We want a manual search in the way that they have been doing things from the beginning."

Grieving relatives have also turned their anger on the owner of the eight-storey building, Sohel Rana, who made his first appearance in court late Monday after being detained on the border with India.

There were chants of "Hang Rana, Hang the Killer!" as he was brought before the court in Dhaka on charges of causing death through negligence. He was remanded in custody for a further 15 days.

Britain's Primark, which was among the retailers to confirm that their clothing products were being made at the Rana Plaza compound, announced on Monday that it would compensate victims of the collapse.

Primark said it was working with a local non-governmental organisation to assess the needs of the victims, including providing emergency food aid to families.

"Primark will also pay compensation to the victims of this disaster who worked for its supplier," the low-cost fashion retailer said in a statement.

"This will include the provision of long-term aid for children who have lost parents, financial aid for those injured and payments to the families of the deceased."

Canadian supermarket giant Loblaw made a similar announcement, saying it was "working to ensure that we will deliver support in the best and most meaningful way possible".

The firm said it would provide compensation but did not give an estimate of the sum or the toll among its supplier's workers.

The disaster was the latest in a string of tragedies to befall the garment industry in Bangladesh which is a mainstay of the economy.

A fire at another factory last November killed 111 people and the representatives of Western retailers made clear at a meeting on Monday in Dhaka with industry bosses that they were considering their presence in Bangladesh.

Cabinet Secretary Musharraf Hossain told AFP that the government was now ordering a new round of safety inspections.

"The cabinet decided to form a committee headed by a state minister. They will inspect all garment factories and see their conditions and safety standards. The aim is to prevent this kind of disaster," he said.

The government made a similar announcement after the November fire but subsequent inspections were widely derided and resulted in few arrests.

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