By JULHAS ALAM / AP WRITER
DHAKA — Bangladeshis celebrated 38 years of independence Thursday amid tight security as tens of thousands of people visited a national memorial outside the capital to mark the split from Pakistan in which millions of people died.
The government deployed additional security forces in the capital, Dhaka, after officials had warned that Islamic militant groups might launch attacks. It canceled a traditional Independence Day military parade following February's mutiny by border guards that killed 75 people, including 57 army members.
Bangladesh became the province of East Pakistan after British colonialists ceded control of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, leading to the creation of India and Pakistan. Pakistan's military rulers refused to hand over power to an elected party of Bangladeshi nationalists following general elections in 1970.
Pakistani forces gunned down thousands of mostly unarmed civilians—including university students, police officers and homeless people sleeping on the streets of Dhaka—in a crackdown in the hours before East Pakistan declared independence, just after dawn on March 26, 1971.
India aided Bangladesh's struggle and it became an independent nation after nine months of bloody war, when Pakistani troops surrendered to a joint Bangladeshi-Indian military command on December 16, 1971. Official figures say about 3 million people were killed and millions more displaced.
On Thursday, the red and green national flag flew atop houses and cars as the government of Awami League party, which led the struggle for independence, vowed that those accused of collaborating with Pakistani forces during the war would face justice.
"We'll definitely try them," lawmaker Abdur Razzak told reporters.
President Zillur Rahman and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina placed wreaths at a national memorial in Savar, 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Dhaka.
Abul Kalam Azad, a spokesman for the elite Rapid Action Battalion force, said some 1,500 additional security forces patrolled the streets of Dhaka on Thursday.
Bangladesh, a Muslim majority nation of 150 million people, has come under attack by Islamic militant groups in recent years.
The government warned Wednesday that militants might launch attacks on Bangladesh's vital garment industry to destabilize the country and its economy. The industry earns some $12 billion in exports a year.
Meanwhile Bangladesh is setting up war crimes tribunals for long-delayed trials of people accused of murder, torture, rape and arson during its 1971 independence war, with the death penalty possible in some cases, officials said Wednesday.
Bangladesh began war crimes trials in 1973, but they were halted in 1975 when the nation's independence leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated in a military coup. Subsequent governments failed to address the issue, despite repeated calls for justice from war heroes and families of those slain.
Rahman's daughter, current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, pledged during her election campaign to prosecute war criminals. In January, Parliament passed a resolution for their quick trial.
Speaking ahead of the nation's 39th Independence Day, Law Minister Shafique Ahmed said the process of holding the trials has already started. One or more tribunals would be set up for quick trials under a 1973 act outlining prosecution and punishment for people accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other crimes under international law.
Last week, the government issued an order barring war crimes suspects from leaving the country.
An inter-ministerial meeting Wednesday discussed the formation of tribunals and appointments of prosecutors and investigation agencies, State Minister for Home Affairs Sohel Taj said.
"The investigation process has begun. The trials will begin soon," Taj said.