12 killed in B'desh poll violence amid low turnout

12 killed in B'desh poll violence amid low turnout

Violence and low turnout today marred Bangladesh's general elections as 12 people were killed and over 200 polling stations set on fire across the country by supporters of the opposition BNP-led alliance which has dubbed the controversial polls as "farce".

At least 11 people, all supporters of 18-party opposition alliance, were killed in Rangpur, Dinajpur, Nilphamari, Feni and Munshiganj when they tried to stage protests against the polls which they have already boycotted.

Also, one policeman was beaten to death by suspected strikers at a voting centre in Dinajpur.

Most of the voters preferred to stay inside home fearing violence during the polling which began at 8 a.m (0200 GMT) in 147 out of 300 constituencies in 59 districts of Bangladesh.

Paramilitary Border Guards and elite Rapid Action Battalion forces were deployed along with police as 390 candidates of mostly ruling Awami League and its ally Jatiya Party were contesting for the 147 seats in the "one- sided" election, being closely watched by India and the world powers.

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

The voting in 147 constituencies where the number of voters is nearly 44,000,00 is very low, with the turnout being almost zero per cent at several polling centres in initial hours, local media reports said.

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

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

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

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".

But voting was suspended at 160 centres due to torching of booths and snatching of ballot boxes and papers. Opposition activists have set over 200 polling stations on fire.

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 the demands. Political violence during strikes enforced by the opposition since November have left nearly 140 people dead.

Hours before the start of voting, suspected opposition activists hacked to death an assistant presiding officer of a polling centre in north-western Thakurgaon while 10 others were killed in clashes with police across the country.

Suspected strikers killed a policeman after attacking a voting centre in Dinajpur's Parbotipur.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 also reported from Zia's hometown at southeastern Feni,Laxmipur and northeastern Habiganj. Zia has been virtually under house arrest here, with no one allowed to either enter or exit from her residence which has been encircled by the security forces.

Zia and her exiled son and party's senior vice chairman Tarique Rahman have separately issued clarion calls to boycott the polls.

"No one at home and abroad will recognise it as election and through this the Awami League government will appear anew as an illegal structure," she had said and termed the polls as a "stigmatised farce".

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.

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 had asked people to cast their votes without fear for continuity of the constitutional process.

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.

There are no observers for the election from the European Union, the US and the UK.

India, closely watching the political developments in its neighbourhood, has wished that people of Bangladesh will overcome their differences through peaceful means.

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