Scores hurt in Bangladesh clashes

NATIONAL SHUTDOWN: A nationwide strike brought the south Asian country to a virtual standstill yesterday, with a number of protesters injured in battles with riot police


Mon, Jan 23, 2006 - Page 5

A strike paralyzed Bangladesh yesterday after dozens of people were injured in clashes and police detained opposition activists.

A 14-party opposition alliance, led by former prime minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League, called the strike over demands for the resignation of Chief Election Commissioner M.A. Aziz, who they accuse of favouring the government.

The opposition has also demanded that the election commission to be reformed to make it "fully capable of holding a free and fair parliamentary election", due in January 2007.

The country's four-party Islamist allied government, which has a hefty majority in parliament, rejected the opposition charge.

Authorities deployed hundreds of extra police and special forces in Dhaka and other cities to keep order, after the opposition vowed to make the stoppage a "new turning point" in their long campaign to force out Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia.

Schools and businesses, including the Dhaka Stock Exchange and most government and private offices, were either closed or staffed thinly. Passenger and freight transport was also severely disrupted as no inter-regional buses or trucks were to be seen on the roads yesterday, on what is normally a working day in the Muslim-majority country.

Chittagong was left out of the strike call as yesterday was the death centenary of a sufi saint who lived near the port city.

In Dhaka, at least 25 people were injured in clashes between Awami activists and police on Saturday evening.

Newspapers said hundreds of anti-government activists were picked up by police overnight trying to discourage strikers. Police declined to confirm the reports.

Witnesses said further clashes yetsterday broke out when steel-helmeted riot police used batons to disperse opposition leaders and workers marching on the streets and chanting in support of the strike in Dhaka and in the industrial town of Tongi near the capital.

Twenty people were injured in clashes in Dhaka and 15 in Tongi.

Police said they acted after protesters attacked them with stones and brickbats.

More than 8,500 police, paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles and the elite Rapid Action Battalion were on guard in the streets yesterday in the capital to prevent any violence, Dhaka police official Mahbubur Rashid said.

The strike is the first this year called by opposition parties.