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Bangladesh opposition kicks off 72-hour blockade afresh

Toll goes up to 23 in continuing violence in Bangladesh

  • By Anisur Rahman, Correspondent
  • Published: 13:21 November 30, 2013
  • Gulf News

Dhaka: Officers opened fire during clashes with thousands of Bangladeshi opposition supporters killing two people amid escalating protests against elections slated for January, police said Saturday.

One demonstrator was shot dead by officers Saturday and another died late Friday as police used live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse protesters.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies began to enforce afresh another 72-hour nationwide blockade over upcoming elections, a day after they wrapped up a bloody 71-hour identical protest that had claimed 22 lives across Bangladesh.

“The countrywide 72-hour road, railway and waterways blockade will start from 6:00am tomorrow and last until Monday 6am,” BNP’s joint secretary general and spokesman Ruhul Kabir Rizvi told a hurriedly called press briefing at the party office last night.

He added that the fresh blockade was called demanding cancellation of the election schedule setting January 5, 2014 for voting and mount pressures on government to release their detained leaders and activists.

But in a predawn raid police arrested Rizvi raiding the BNP’s Naya Paltan central office along with two party activists as they overnight stayed there back, while the opposition activists launched the second spell of blockade exploding crude bombs and staging brief street marches in the capital.

Witnesses said plainclothesmen backed by police in riot gears arrested Rizvi entering into the BNP office breaking open the main gate while the incident visibly indicted a toughened government stance against the opposition escalating tensions further.

The death of an activist of fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, a crucial ally of main opposition BNP, meanwhile took the toll to 23 in the past one week’s of violence, after the blockaders clashed with police at Kotchandpur of western Jhinaidah district, according to private TV channels.

“The clashes erupted at around 9 am as the Jamaat activists took to the street . . . he succumbed to his bullet wounds as he was rushed to the (nearby) hospital,” a local journalist told a TV channel.

The opposition activists in northwestern Rajshahi, meanwhile, torched four rice carrying trucks and a microbus laden with medicines reducing the products into ashes while in southeastern Chandpur and Chittagong, they clashed with police leaving two policemen seriously injured, one with bullet wounds.

Most of the blockade casualties were reported from outside Dhaka during the previous 71-hour blockade when the suspected opposition activists also removed railway tracks exposing train derailments and torched vehicles.

But the capital Dhaka apparently witnessed the worst part of the violence as at the last leg of the blockade, arsonists set afire a bus burning 19 passengers on Thursday evening while two of the burn victims died in subsequent hours and doctors said they were unsure about the fate of the rests.

The opposition denied allegations of setting afire the bus, attributing the act to government supporters, as state minister for home Shamsul Haque Tuku called the arsonists “animals in human disguise”.

Police yesterday sued 17 BNP leaders including its acting secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and Rizvi on charges of “instigating the arson”, prompting BNP chief and ex-prime minister Khaleda Zia to issue a statement demanding immediate withdrawal of the cases.

“I strongly condemn and protest suing the 18-party combine leaders on charges of instigation,” Zia said in a press statement this evening.

The opposition first called the blockade hours after the election commission announced the polls plan on Monday evening while the opposition protests in the subsequent three days witnessed massive clashes injuring hundreds across the country.

In one incident during the opposition protest earlier this, a petrol bomb hurled by blockaders landed squarely on the head of a 42-year old woman cook of a private bank exploding her skull while she died on the next day.

Bangladesh evaded a major train tragedy three days ago due to the promptness of an ordinary farmer who stopped a passenger train carrying some 500 passengers waving a piece of red cloths suddenly discovering that fishplates of a railway track was removed by suspected protestors to enforce their blockade.

“We condemn this politics (of destruction), so should all do who love Bangladesh,” the Daily Star newspaper wrote in a front-page editorial while the Prothom Alo carried another front-page commentary questioning “what crime the ordinary people committed”.

The BNP-led 18-party opposition alliance is demanding installation of a “non-party” government for election oversight with an “acceptable person” as its head.

The ruling Awami League rejected the demand calling it “unconstitutional” while Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina asked the opposition to join the polls time “all-party” cabinet taking “whichever portfolio you want”.

The dispute was aggravated after the independent election commission on Monday announced the schedule for the 10th general elections setting January 5, 2014 for voting, a plan immediately rejected by the opposition.

Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmed at the time said the statutory body awaited for days a settlement of disputes among the major parties but was forced to announce the schedule to comply with a constitutional deadline for staging the polls by January 24, 2014.

Ahmed on Tuesday said the plans for the franchise could be revised if the feuding major parties reached a consensus on election time as “everything is possible if they reached a settlement in the peoples’ interest”.

But he said the commission was still proceeding with the plans to stage the election on January 5, 2014 while it decided to deploy army troops in aid of civil administration to maintain peace an order during the polls.

According to the schedule, December 2 is the last date for submission of nomination papers, meaning the opposition must decide its stance on the polls and nominate candidates in next two days.

But they so far showed no visible effort for the election preparedness while the Awami League yesterday announced names of their nominees for the 300 constituencies.

BNP again urged the election commission yesterday to shelve the poll plans until the major parties resolved their dispute as the party asked the premier to quit paving ways for what it said for a credible election.

Hasina, however, earlier told a party meeting that the elections would be held in due time and urged the countrymen to cast their votes for continued democratic process and alleged BNP was trying to evade the polls sensing their defeat.

Impact on supply chain

Major business chambers earlier urged the feuding sides to resolve disputes saying the violent street protests were affecting production lines and Bangladesh’s trades with outside world.

But the blockade appeared to have a direct impact on everyday life disrupting the supply chains to kitchen markets amid reports that hundreds of tonnes of vegetables were rotten on trucks as those could not carried to the urban markets.

UN intervention

The situation prompted United Nations secretary general Ban-Ki-moon send on Wednesday a second letter in weeks to Hasina and her archrival Zia urging them to sit in dialogue to resolve their dispute while a UN “political mission” is set to arrive in Dhaka next week for talks with the feuding parties.

Ban in his letter confirmed that one of his top deputies, Assistant Secretary General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, would travel to Dhaka from Dec 6-10 to try to broker a deal between the two political camps, a news agency sad quoting an unidentified official familiar with the letter.

“There are indications that he (UN chief) will try to mediate . . . Mr Ban said he believed a free and fair election was still possible in Bangladesh,” the official said.

The fresh UN initiatives came after western nations including the United States and neighbouring countries like India and China engaged their efforts for an amicable settlement of the deadlock.

According to an estimate tallied by a major newspaper, political violence since January this year killed 348 people.

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