Fri, Dec 22, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Electoral protest in Dhaka turns violent

`UNRULY MOB' Police and army officers were called in to control the crowd of opposition protesters demanding sweeping reforms ahead of general elections next month

AFP , DHAKA

A Bangladeshi riot police officer challenges a protester of the 14-party alliance Awami League during a countrywide strike at Adabor, Dhaka, yesterday. The Awami League and its allies called the daylong strike to pile pressure on the interim government to delay the Jan. 22 election.

PHOTO: EPA

Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at opposition protesters in the capital yesterday, as a nationwide strike over electoral reforms brought the country to a standstill.

The clashes occurred after hundreds of supporters went on a rampage in Dhaka, smashing cars and torching a police vehicle, police said.

"They hurled rocks at our of-ficers and became unruly. We shot tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the unruly mob. Army officers were also deployed at the scene to prevent further violence," local police chief Nasir Uddin said.

At least five police officers were injured during the clashes, he said, adding there were also injuries among the protesters.

The clashes came as the opposition, led by the Awami League, enforced a nationwide strike to demand sweeping reforms ahead of next month's general elections they argue would be rigged in favor of the outgoing Bangladesh National Party (BNP).

Chanting slogans including "no reform, no elections," supporters of the Awami League and its allies marched through Dhaka and major cities, while security forces also stepped up their presence.

Police said the strike had halted transport and disrupted business operations. In Dhaka, offices, schools and colleges were closed.

"At least 9,400 police and paramilitaries have been deployed in the capital," police inspector Mahbubur Rashid said.

The roads around the presidential palace were also sealed off.

The strike came despite the interim government's agreement to push through two key electoral reforms demanded by the opposition ahead of the Jan. 22 polls.

The interim government, led by President Iajuddin Ahmed, said it would ask a top election official accused of bias to go on leave, and decided to use an updated voter list based on one drawn up for the 2001 elections, not a list the opposition says contains millions of "ghost voters."

But the Awami League said the reforms did not go far enough.

"We are not satisfied with these latest steps. It's piecemeal and it came too late. And also it did not have everything that we have been demanding for months," opposition spokesman Abdul Jalil said.

"The president still could not prove that he is neutral. He is still being dictated by the BNP," Jalil added.

The Awami League and its allies have threatened to boycott the polls unless the interim government carried out a string of other reforms and set a new date for the vote.

Pre-poll political violence has already claimed at least 35 lives and injured thousands, and the interim government has also called out the army to keep order.

Repeated strikes, blockades and protests have disrupted business life, costing the impoverished country millions each day.

Chittagong, the country's main port, has again been cut off from the rest of the country, senior police officer Farid Uddin said.

Chittagong port handles more than 90 percent of Bangladesh's US$24 billion foreign trade. Businesses have repeatedly urged the political parties to spare the port from their protests.

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