Deadly clashes erupt in Bangladesh

December 30, 2013 - 10:29:27 am

A youth sets fire to a motorbike during a protest by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in Dhaka yesterday. RIGHT: Lawyers loyal to BNP shout slogans as policemen use water cannons on them.

DHAKA: Police barred Bangladesh’s opposition leader from leaving home yesterday to lead a banned march in protest at an upcoming election, as two people died in battles between her supporters and security forces.

Police fired water cannon and shotguns during clashes throughout the capital with hundreds of demonstrators, some of whom threw home-made bombs.

Scores of officers blocked Khaleda Zia from leaving her home in an upscale neighbourhood in Dhaka in her car for the march, fearing her presence would inflame unrest in the build-up to the January 5 election.

Zia, a two-time former premier, had been scheduled to address supporters converging in Dhaka for the march that she called to try to force Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to quit and halt the poll. Zia, who is under de facto house arrest, harangued the rows of officers barricading her front gate, as she again urged her supporters to converge in the capital for the so-called “March of Democracy”.

“You’re supposed to be on the streets, why are you now in my gate? Don’t touch me!” Zia told the officers, footage on private Channel 24 television showed.

“This government is illegal. Democracy is now dead,” she told reporters gathered at her house.

The march is the latest tactic by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies in a campaign to force Hasina to quit and make way for a neutral caretaker government to oversee the polls.

Police battled protesters who tried to gather at the opposition’s headquarters, the national press club and other places throughout Dhaka. In the Rampura neighbourhood, officers fired shotguns at more than 200 bomb-throwing demonstrators in clashes that left one person dead. A security guard at Dhaka’s Kamalapur Railway Station was killed by a small bomb thrown by protesters, a senior police officer said.

“We fired shotguns to disperse the protesters who exploded dozens of small bombs (in Rampura),” assistant police commissioner Nur Alam Siddiqui said, adding that one protester later died in hospital. Ruling party activists armed with sticks and rocks also attacked pro-opposition lawyers and demonstrators outside the country’s top court and at the press club.

Some 11,000 police and elite Rapid Action Battalion officers were patrolling the capital to try to halt the march, Dhaka police spokesman Masudur Rahman  said. Police fear the rally will provoke more bloodshed after what has already been the deadliest year for political violence since independence in 1971.

Protests, strikes and transport blockades called by the opposition throughout the country since October have left more than 100 dead and crippled the impoverished nation’s economy.

Police detained more than 1,000 opposition supporters as a “preventive measure” before the latest march, while authorities suspended Dhaka-bound bus, ferry and train services — virtually cutting off the city from the rest of the country. Police spokesman Rahman said the arrests were made before the march “to prevent acts of violence and sabotage”.

“We’ve not approved the BNP protests. So anyone trying to gather outside the BNP office will face arrest,” he said.

Five sand-laden trucks were  parked outside the gate of Zia’s residence before the march, apparently to prevent her leaving.

The government has described the march as undemocratic, with the deputy law minister Quamrul Islam urging ruling party supporters to resist the protests “with sticks”.

The strikes and blockades have further damaged the economy, already reeling from the impact on the crucial garment sector of a factory collapse in April which sparked widespread industrial unrest. Hasina has refused to yield to demands to step down. But the credibility of the upcoming polls has been further undermined by the refusal of foreign countries and organisations to send observers.

With Hasina’s Awami League certain of victory, the elections are seen as likely to further widen the political divide in a country which has endured nearly two dozen coups in its short history. AFP

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