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|Violence has marred controversial general elections in Bangladesh, leaving at least 18 people dead in clashes between opposition supporters and police.
Thousands of protesters firebombed polling stations and stole ballot papers as deadly violence flared across the South Asian nation during Sunday’s elections, which was boycotted by the BNP, the main opposition party, and its allies.
Polls closed at 4pm (1000 GMT) after eight hours of voting and final results were expected in the early hours of Monday morning.
Police said more than 200 polling stations were set on fire or trashed by mobs in a bid by the opposition activists to wreck the contest.
AFP correspondents said there were no queues to vote, while local television reported that only a single person voted in the first three hours at one station.
The BNP is protesting against the decision by Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s government to scrap the practice of having a neutral caretaker government oversee elections.
Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from Dhaka, said: “The government did everything it could to bring the opposition on board, and blames the opposition entirely for the violence. The opposition, on the other hand, says it will accept nothing less than a neutral caretaker body and this government to step aside.”
With the opposition trying to enforce a general strike as part of a strategy to wreck the polls, government officials acknowledged the turnout was significantly lower than usual.
“The turnout was low, partly due to the boycott by many parties,” Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad, the election commission head, said without immediately giving a figure.
Two of those killed on Sunday were beaten to death while guarding polling stations in northern districts which bore the brunt of the violence.
“We’ve seen thousands of protesters attack polling booths and our personnel at a number of locations with Molotov cocktails and petrol bombs,” Syed Abu Sayem, police chief of the northern Bogra district, told AFP news agency.
“The situation is extremely volatile.”
He described how thousands of ballot papers had been ceremoniously set on fire.
Most of the other victims were opposition activists who were shot by police, while a driver died of his injuries from a Molotov cocktail attack on his lorry.
“We were forced to open fire after thousands of them attacked us with guns and small bombs,” Mokbul Hossain, police chief in the northern Parbatipur town, said
“It was a coordinated attack. They managed to seize some ballot papers and they tried to steal our weapons.”
In Dhaka, police confirmed at least two petrol bomb attacks on polling stations.
Tens of thousands of troops were deployed across the country after around 150 people had been killed in the build-up, but they failed to halt the bloodshed.
The Awami League-led government has accused the BNP of orchestrating the violence and kept its leader, Khaleda Zia, confined to her home for a week.
Outcome not in doubt
The outcome of the contest is not in doubt as voting is taking place in only 147 of the 300 parliamentary constituencies.
Awami League candidates or allies have a clear run in the remaining 153.
The government said it had to hold the vote after parliament’s five-year term expired, but the BNP said it was a joke.
“Yes, the festive mood is missing but this election is essential to ensure constitutional continuity,” Quamrul Islam, deputy law minister, said.
Hasina’s government amended the constitution in 2010 and decided to hold elections under an all-party government.
However, Zia argued that such a government would in effect be headed by the governing party which would undermine the fairness of the process.
More violence feared
Many fear that the election is likely to stoke violence after the bloodiest year of unrest since Bangladesh broke free from Pakistan in 1971.
The former East Pakistan is the world’s eighth most populous nation but also one of the poorest in Asia, and more turmoil will undermine efforts to improve the lot of its population of 154 million – a third of whom live below the poverty line.
A local rights group says more than 500 people have been killed since January 2013, including victims of clashes that erupted after the conviction of Islamists for crimes dating back to the 1971 liberation war.
The main Islamist party was banned by judges from taking part in the election, and its leaders are either in detention or in hiding.
Alarmed by the violence, the US, EU and Commonwealth all declined to send observers.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on Sunday, Amena Mohsin, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University, said: “The election has not been democratic. It was an in-house election. The government could have held a more inclusive election and the election commission could have delayed the vote further.”
Local Dhaka police chief Sirajul Islam put the number of the crowd at the rally at “over 100,000” [Reuters]
|At least six people have been killed and more than 100 injured across Bangladesh and more than 100,000 opposition activists rallied in the capital, Dhaka, on Friday to demand that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina quit and order polls under a caretaker government.
Police said the protesters died after officers and border guards opened fire in three towns as the supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its Islamist allies protested across the country, AFP news agency reported.
Two protesters were killed and several others were injured by bullets in the southern resort district of Cox’s Bazaar when border guards opened fire at several thousand supporters of the BNP.
“The border guards opened fire after the BNP activists defied a ban on rallies and attacked the forces,” Cox’s Bazaar district deputy police chief Babul Akter told AFP.
Several television channels reported that three people died in the central district of Chandpur when police and ruling Awami League supporters clashed with opposition supporters.
At least 30 people were injured in the clash in the area, which is 64km east of the capital.
A demonstrator died in the northern town of Jaldhaka after the elite Rapid Action Battalion opened fire at about 10,000 rampaging supporters of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, a key ally of the BNP, area police head Mohammad Moniruzzman told AFP.
The violence also spread to the eastern district of Comilla, where at least 20 people were injured.
Similar clashes were also reported in Bangladesh’s second-largest city, Chittagong, which is in the southeast, and in many other towns across the country.
In Dhaka, opposition supporters allegedly set fire to a car and a bus, but no injuries were reported.
At least 10 homemade bombs were exploded at a premier public university area in Dhaka.
Ruhul Kabir Rizvy Ahmed, a spokesman for the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, said at least 400 opposition supporters were arrested across the country.
The clashes occurred as the BNP and its Islamist allies called nationwide mass protests to force Hasina to resign ahead of the January 2014 elections and set up a technocrat-led caretaker government to oversee the polls.
BNP leader Khaleda Zia addressed a rally of over 100,000 supporters at a national memorial in central Dhaka, renewing her threat to boycott the polls and setting Hasina a new weekend deadline to hold a dialogue on her demand for a caretaker government.
“There will be no election under Hasina. We won’t allow any one-party election. The election must include all parties and be conducted by a neutral caretaker government,” Zia told the crowd, announcing a nationwide strike for Sunday to Tuesday to press her demands.
Bangladeshi politics has long been dominated by a feud between the two dynastic leaders who distrust each other.
Local Dhaka police chief Sirajul Islam put the number of the crowd at the rally at “over 100,000”. Witnesses and BNP officials said the figure was double.
Tensions have been rising in Bangladesh since Hasina’s ruling Awami League (AL) party rejected an October 24 deadline set by the BNP for accepting its demands.
Zia, who has twice served as premier, branded the government “illegal” as of Friday, citing a legal provision that requires a neutral caretaker government to be set up three months before elections slated for January 2014.
But the ruling AL abolished the provision in 2011, handing the job of overseeing polls to a reformed Election Commission.
The government has deployed thousands of police and paramilitary border guards in Dhaka, in the port city of Chittagong where the ruling party called a rival rally that was peaceful, and other potential flashpoints.
“We’ve sent BGB (Border Guard Bangladesh) troops to 20 major cities and towns,” BGB director colonel Hafiz Ahsan told AFP.
Police said they fired rubber bullets in half a dozen other towns, leaving scores injured after the supporters of the AL party and the BNP clashed.
While the nation has a long history of political violence, this year has been the deadliest since Bangladesh gained independence in 1971.
At least 150 people have been killed since January after a controversial court began handing down death sentences to Islamist leaders allied to ex-premier Zia.
- Five dead as 100,000 opposition supporters rally in Bangladesh (channelnewsasia.com)
- Bangladesh security officials clash with opposition supporters, killing 3, injuring dozens (vancouverdesi.com)
- Bangladesh Opposition Unveils Strike Plan (abcnews.go.com)