Fresh political violence grips Bangladesh

Last updated 14:21 30/12/2013

Clashes erupt in the Bangladesh capital Dhaka between pro- and anti-government protesters ahead of elections.

A pro-government activist sets fire to a motorcycle during a clash with lawyers loyal to Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Bangladesh Jamaat-E-Islami inside the premises of Supreme Court in Dhaka on Sunday.
CHAOS: Lawyers loyal to Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Bangladesh Jamaat-E-Islami shout slogans as policemen use water cannons in the violence leading up to the election.

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Security forces and opposition activists clashed in Bangladesh's capital of Dhaka, leaving at least one person dead, as thousands of police took to the streets to foil a mass rally calling on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to cancel upcoming elections.

Reports said authorities had detained hundreds of people in a crackdown ahead of next weekend's elections, further deepening the impoverished South Asian nation's political crisis.

Hasina's political rival, Khaleda Zia, a former prime minister and the current opposition leader, had hoped to address the rally in defiance of a government ban on large political gatherings. But security officials Sunday surrounded Zia's home in Dhaka's upscale Gulshan area and parked sand-laden trucks in an apparent effort to obstruct her from leaving her home. Police denied that the measures were taken to stop her from joining the rally.

Zia attempted to come out of her home, but police built a barricade that prevented her from getting to her car. TV video showed an angry Zia condemning Hasina's government, saying, "Stop this."

Meanwhile, thousands of security forces, mainly police, tried to prevent the activists from rallying.

A 21-year-old student was killed in Dhaka's Malibagh area when security officials fired rubber bullets to disperse the activists, said police official Mozammel Haque. Witnesses said the violence broke out after a group of activists from the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party began marching in the streets.

Stick-wielding ruling party supporters chased stone-throwing opposition activists on the premises of the Supreme Court. Witnesses said dozens of people were injured in that violence.

Public transportation in Dhaka was suspended, cutting the capital off from the rest of the country. The opposition blamed police for preventing buses and other vehicles from travelling to the city. Traffic was thin on Dhaka's usually clogged streets, with many people staying home in fear of violence.

Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party said it would continue the protest Monday, and urged its supporters to block roads, railways and waterways across the country.

Local media reported that more than 650 people had been detained since Friday as part of a nationwide crackdown ahead of the Jan. 5 elections, which the opposition is boycotting. Opposition parties said those detained are their activists, but police said they were taken in on specific charges to prevent acts of sabotage.

The opposition insists Hasina should resign and hand over power to an independent caretaker to oversee the polls. Hasina has rejected the demand and vowed to go ahead with the elections.

Sunday's rally was seen as the last major attempt by the opposition to derail the election, but the protest was unlikely to succeed because of the government's hard-line approach.

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More than 150 people have died in political violence in Bangladesh since the crisis intensified in October. The conflict pits an opposition alliance led by Zia's party against Hasina, who accuses Zia of protecting people being tried or convicted of war crimes involving the nation's 1971 independence war against Pakistan.

Jamaat-e-Islami, the main partner of Zia's party, wants the government to halt the war crimes trials of its leaders. Zia says the trials initiated by Hasina are politically motivated to weaken the opposition, an allegation the government has denied. Jamaat-e-Islami is banned from taking part in the election.

Many citizens are frustrated by the raging chaos in Bangladesh, which is struggling to overcome poverty, establish democracy and increase per capita income.

"Too much blood has been spilled in these past many weeks. We demand a stop to such bloodletting," Dhaka's Daily Star newspaper said in an editorial Sunday.

Businesses have also expressed their concern, saying the conflict is affecting the country's progress in the manufacturing sector, including a burgeoning garment industry that earns more than $20 billion a year from exports.

- AP


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