Polls started in Bangladesh, as 6 killed in violence

Polls started in Bangladesh, as 6 killed in violence

Voting began this morning in Bangladesh's violence-plagued general elections amid calls from opposition BNP and its allies to resist the polls, even as six persons were killed in clashes across the country.

Polling began at 8 a.m (0200 GMT) in 147 out of 300 constituencies in 59 districts of Bangladesh, officials said.

Paramilitary Border Guard Bangladesh and elite anti-crime Rapid Action Battalion forces joined hands with police on election duty as 390 candidates of mostly ruling Awami League and its ally Jatiya Party were contesting for the 147 seats where the number of voters is nearly 44,000,000.

There is no election in remaining 153 constituencies which have returned winners without a contest, as opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led 18 party alliance is boycotting the polls.

Meanwhile, police said suspected opposition activists hacked to death an assistant presiding officer of a polling centre in north-western Thakurgaon while five others were killed in clashes with police across the country.

"The miscreants hacked to death (election official) Jobaidur Rahman with sharp weapons while they set on fire the polling centre using Molotov cocktails...Five policemen were also injured," police superintendent Faisal Mahmud said.

According to TV reports, two opposition activists were killed in clashes with police in neighbouring Rangpur while other casualties were reported from north-western Dinajpur and Nilphamari and central Gazipur.

The authorities suspended polling at more than a dozen makeshift voting centes housed at schools after opposition activists set those facilities on fire.

BNP chairperson and ex-prime minister Khaleda Zia and her exiled son and party's senior vice chairman Tarique Rahman have separately issued clarion calls to boycott the polls.

According to TV channels, the voters turn out was less at most of the polling stations due to tensions over the polls but election officials expected more voters later in the day as the voting would continue until 4 pm.

Officials said over 375,000 security personnel were deployed across Bangladesh to maintain peace and nearly 50,000 army troops were kept on vigil as "striking force".

Opposition activists are burning down polling stations and attacking public transport in a bid to keep voters away from the polls, which they called as "farcical". At least 100 polling centres in 23 districts were torched since midnight.

The BNP-led opposition had demanded postponement of the polls and setting up of a non-party caretaker government, but Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina rejected its demands. Political violence during strikes enforced by the opposition since November have left nearly 140 people dead. 

The north-western districts appeared to be major trouble spots as the voting began with reports of violent clashes and attacks on polling centres.

Sporadic incidents of violence were reported from Zia's hometown at southeastern Feni, Laxmipur and northeastern Habiganj.

A similar poll in 1996, boycotted by the opposition which was the Awami League, witnessed a mere 7 per cent turnout and forced Zia-led BNP government to call for fresh polls within months under a neutral non-party caretaker system.

A poor turnout would give the opposition the chance to question the legitimacy of today's parliament elections.

Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmed has said the huge deployment of security forces will impact confidence of the voters and enable them to go and vote.

Meanwhile, a youth, believed to be a Jamaat man, was killed in clashes in neighbouring Nilphamari as the opposition activists tried to torch a polling centre.

A BNP activist succumbed to his wounds early today at a hospital in north-western Lalmonirhat, whereas one truck driver died after struggling for life.

Prime Minister Hasina had last week said that despite her sincere efforts, BNP declined to contest the polls which must be held to evade a constitutional vacuum after the expiry of the 10th parliament on January 24.

She asked the people to cast their votes without fear for continuity of the constitutional process and prevent illegal takeover.

She, however, hinted that the 10th parliament to be installed after the elections could be short-lived to pave ways for the 11th general election after talks with BNP if it cut off ties with Jamaat, which was opposed to Bangladesh's 1971 independence from Pakistan.

Several leaders supplemented her saying constitutional obligation required the government to go for the polls though it lost the usual euphoric mood in absence of the opposition.

"It is true, this is an election which is being held just to comply with the constitution...if the BNP cuts off their ties with Jamaat a settlement could be reached for the next 11th elections," junior minister for law Quamrul Islam told newsmen at a polling centre in Dhaka.

But Zia asked party supporters and common people to boycott the polls, saying "no one at home and abroad will recognize it as election and through this the Awami League government will appear anew as an illegal structure."

Her son Rahman, who is wanted in several graft and criminal cases at home, in a video message from London supplemented his mother urging people to boycott the polls for what he said in the interest of the "country’s existence". 

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