Bangladesh capital cut off to prevent opposition march

Police maintain roadblocks around Dhaka as officers patrol streets

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 December, 2013, 5:50pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 December, 2013, 5:50pm

Bangladesh’s capital was effectively cut off from the rest of the country on Monday, with transport services into Dhaka halted in a bid to thwart the second day of a march against next week’s elections.

Bus, ferry and train services were suspended for a third day as authorities resumed efforts to stop thousands of people travelling to Dhaka for the opposition march, banned by police fearing violence.

“We restarted Dhaka-bound bus services after Sunday afternoon. But all the buses were turned back by the government authorities as the opposition extended the march to Monday,” Faruq Talukdar, owner of the country largest bus service, Sohag Motors, said.

The opposition and its allies called the march in the hope that up to a million people will descend on central Dhaka in a last-ditch attempt to force Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to quit and call off January 5 elections.

Two people were killed at the start of the march on Sunday during clashes between bomb-throwing opposition supporters and police who responded with shotguns and water cannons.

Police also on Sunday stopped opposition leader Khaleda Zia, a two-time former prime minister, from leaving her home, where she has been under de facto house arrest since Wednesday, to address the rally.

On Monday, police maintained roadblocks around the capital while thousands of officers patrolled the city’s streets to stop people gathering at key locations for the march.

Authorities fear the rally could become a focal point for more unrest, after what has already been the deadliest year for political violence in the country’s history.

Dhaka-bound trains services were suspended at the country’s second largest city of Chittagong, platform officer Omar Faruq said, as part of transport disruptions that started on Saturday. Ferry services were also halted from the main coastal city of Barisal, the private Independent Television said.

The ruling Awami League party mocked Sunday’s march as a “damp squib”, and insisted the polls would proceed as planned despite a boycott by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies.

The parties, fearing the vote could be rigged, have been demanding that Hasina stand down and allow a neutral caretaker government to oversee the polls, but she has refused to yield.

A series of crippling national strikes, protests and transport blockades called by the opposition since October in a bid to halt the elections have left at least 275 people dead.

The government late on Sunday detained a senior BNP official on charges of arson, just minutes after he told reporters that the protests would continue through until the polls.

“A large number of our leaders have now been arrested including four lawmakers, four members (of) our highest decision making body, four secretaries and a huge lot of officials and supporters,” said BNP vice president Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury.

“Almost every BNP leader and official has also been implicated in false charges,” he added.

Police said at least 1,200 protesters have been arrested in the past four days as part of “preventive measures” against the march.