Monday, October 28, 2013

Strike cripples Bangladesh as death toll rises

Dhaka — Fresh violence erupted across Bangladesh on Monday leaving at least three people dead as the opposition enforced the second day of a nationwide strike amid a mounting political crisis.

Police said a bomb blast in the western town of Harina Kundu killed a local opposition official as elsewhere street battles broke out between thousands of supporters of the two main rival political parties.

\"Apparently the bomb was hurled, targeting him (the local official). He died on his way to the hospital,\" local police chief Mohibul Islam told AFP.

Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas during clashes between some 3,000 activists from the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the ruling Awami League in western Joypurhat district.

Two people died in separate incidents elsewhere, police said, taking to 15 the number of people killed in the political unrest that has been escalating across the country since Friday.

BNP and its Islamist allies staged mass protests on Friday and called a three-day strike from Sunday to force the prime minister quit and make way for elections under a caretaker government.

Last-minute talks on Saturday between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her bitter rival, BNP leader Khaleda Zia, failed to halt the strike and defuse the crisis over the elections set for January 2014.

Hasina\'s appeal to call off the strike occurred during a 40-minute phone conversation -- believed to be the first time in at least a decade that the two \"battling begums\" have spoken.

\"Begum\" is an honorific for a Muslim woman of rank.

Zia, who has twice served as premier, has since Friday branded the government \"illegal\", citing a legal provision that requires a neutral government to be set up three months before elections.

Hasina said such an arrangement is unconstitutional, proposing instead an all-party interim government led by her to oversee the January polls. But the BNP rejected the proposal, claiming it would allow Hasina to rig results.

Local television networks on Monday showed clashes in dozens of towns and cities across the country, with thousands of protesters taking to the streets, barricading highways, exploding crude bombs and torching ruling party offices.

Schools, shops and other businesses also remained closed in towns and cities for the strike, while thousands of extra police and paramilitary officers have been deployed on the streets, police said.

In the capital Dhaka, police said activists have hurled at least ten small bombs at the residences of ministers, a supreme court judge and a war crimes prosecutor since Friday, although no one has been injured.

\"We think it\'s the work of those who called the strike,\" Dhaka police spokesman Masudur Rahman told AFP.

Police said BNP activists on Monday hacked a ruling party supporter to death in a northern town, while a truck driver died after he was hit by bricks thrown by protesters in the southeastern coastal town of Satkania.

\"BNP supporters hacked the Awami League supporter to death with machetes at Rambhadra Bazar early in the morning,\" local police chief Saidur Rahman told AFP.

BNP deputy chief Fakhrul Islam Alamgir accused police of opening fire on its supporters during the protests, inflaming tensions. He also said the opposition was ready for \"talks and compromise\" on the issue of who would oversee the upcoming elections.

The last time the two main parties fought street battles was in late 2006, when dozens were killed, causing the country to shut down for weeks before the army stepped in to cancel elections and set up a military-backed caretaker government.

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 on Islamist leaders allied to ex-premier Zia.
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