4 Shot Dead on Bangladesh Election Anniversary

By Julhas Alam 6 January 2015

DHAKA — Clashes between police and opposition activists and a separate attack by unidentified gunmen left at least four people dead in Bangladesh on Monday amid heightened tensions on the anniversary of elections boycotted by a major opposition alliance last year.

Two men on a motorbike opened fire on a group of anti-government activists in northwestern Bangladesh, killing two, while two others died in separate clashes elsewhere.

The shooting took place in Natore district, 160 kilometers (100 miles) northwest of the capital, Dhaka, which has remained largely cut off from the rest of the country since Sunday, said Aminul Haque, a leader of the local unit of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

Police would not immediately confirm the identities of the dead, but Haque said they were activists from the party’s student wing. The identities of the two men on the motorbike were not immediately known.

Separately, police and ruling party activists clashed with opposition activists in the northwestern districts of Rajshahi and Chapainawabganj, leaving two others dead and dozens injured, including police, police said.

In both cases police opened fire and used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse stone-throwing activists who attempted to march, ignoring a police ban.

Similar violence was reported in the northeastern district of Chittagong, where the opposition said at least 300 party activists were arrested.

The Jan. 5 elections last year were boycotted by a major opposition alliance led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. Tensions heated up recently after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League party said it would hold rallies to celebrate the anniversary, while Zia—her archrival—announced that anti-government protests would take place.

The violence, which follows a year of relative calm since last year’s elections, demonstrates that the country’s politics remain deeply divided.

Zia denounced Monday’s police actions and asked her supporters to continue road, rail and waterway blockades across the country for an indefinite period.

Hasina, meanwhile, urged the opposition in a televised address to shun violence.

Speaking to activists from her party’s student wing on Sunday, Hasina criticized Zia, saying it was a mistake to boycott last year’s elections and accusing her of destabilizing the country. Zia’s party boycotted the elections because it said they would be rigged.

Police on Sunday banned all rallies in Dhaka and prevented Zia from leaving her office, while dozens of opposition activists were detained across the country. Police said they cordoned off Zia’s Dhaka office as part of enhanced security steps.

Police erected barbed wire fences and parked sand-filled trucks at entry points leading to Zia’s house, and a large number of security personnel surrounded the area on Monday.

Zia on Monday got in her car and attempted to leave her office but security officials did not allow her, prompting her to announce the indefinite blockade.

On Sunday, police clashed with opposition supporters in several parts of the country, leaving dozens of people injured, ATN Bangla and Channel 24 television stations reported.

On Monday, Dhaka remained cut off from the rest of the country, with capital-bound buses and ferries shut down because of fears of violence.

Zia has renewed her call for Hasina to step down and declare a new election, but ruling party leaders have rejected the demand, saying the next election will not be held before 2019, when the government’s five-year term expires.

The Election Commission went ahead with last year’s election after two major political alliances led by Hasina and Zia failed to agree on a formula for appointing a caretaker government to oversee the poll.

Chaos had reigned in the country for a year, with opposition activists staging a series of attacks, strikes and transportation blockades that left nearly 300 people dead in 2013.

Zia was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, but failed to hand over power peacefully. A military-backed caretaker government then ruled the country for two years before Hasina came to power with a landslide election win in 2008.