Thousands of protesters poured into Bangladesh's capital yesterday and were met by roughly equally large numbers of security officials after a major political alliance launched a fresh transport blockade to force electoral reforms, witnesses and a news report said.
Transportation and businesses in Dhaka ground to a halt after protesters erected barricades on major highways, cutting off the capital from the rest of the country, the ATN Bangla TV station reported.
Police and organizers did not give crowd estimates, but one reporter saw about 3,000 protesters in one location.
Crowds were gathering in about 30 separate venues across the capital including major entry points to the capital, the ATN Bangla report said.
Clashes outside the capital between rival political activists and police left 50 people injured in the northeastern district of Sylhet, a witness said by telephone from the district.
Another 15 people suffered injuries after police clashed with activists west of Dhaka, the United News of Bangladesh agency reported.
Some protesters smashed a number of vehicles which tried to defy the blockade, ATN Bangla said.
The areas around the presidential palace in downtown Dhaka were the main protest venue, as President Iajuddin Ahmed sat in a meeting with members of an interim government to try to end the political impasse, the report said.
The indefinite, nationwide protest came after last-minute efforts by Ahmed to resolve a political deadlock threatening next month's elections failed on Saturday.
Only a few three-wheel rickshaws were plying Dhaka's streets yesterday, a working day in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, a nation of 144 million people.
Late Saturday, Ahmed met separately with former prime minister Khaleda Zia and the head of the alliance, Sheikh Hasina, to try to avert the strike.
Hasina was the leader of the opposition during Zia's tenure that ended in October, and prime minister before Zia came to power. The two women are longtime political adversaries.
Zia urged Ahmed to ask Hasina to suspend the blockade because previous strikes have harmed the impoverished country's economy, party spokesman Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan said.
Bangladesh has recently witnessed a series of violent street protests, organized by Hasina's alliance, to demand changes in the election commission and a voter list -- both of which they say are biased toward Zia's party.
They also want Ahmed to step down as chief of the interim government charged with running the country until the elections, as they accuse him of being biased.
More than 20,000 security officials fanned out across the city, a statement from the Dhaka Metropolitan Police said.
The officials put up barbed-wire fences around the presidential palace in downtown Dhaka -- blocks away from a planned protest venue near Hasina's Awami League party headquarters.
In the port city of Chittagong, transportation was disrupted, and no long-distance buses were operating from the city's bus terminals, witnesses said. The area is 216km southeast of Dhaka.
A spokesman for the interim government late on Saturday said they would meet yesterday to consider demands made by both political leaders.
"We'll sit Sunday to review outcomes of the meetings with two leaders," interim government spokesman, Mahbubul Alam said after Saturday's meeting.
"I am hopeful of finding a solution," he said.
The Jan. 21 poll date, set by the Election Commission, has been rejected by the alliance, although the parties in the alliance have not said if they plan to boycott it.
A report released on Saturday by the Dhaka office of the US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) said 13 percent of the names on the current voting list were "errors" or duplications.
Most of the duplicate registrations had occurred because of voters moving but not changing their address registration, the NDI said in a statement.
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