At least five people were killed in nationwide clashes as Bangladesh's opposition yesterday began a three-day strike to demand the prime minister quit and make way for polls under a caretaker government.
Police said officers opened fire at protesters in the western town of Nagarkanda after 3,000 supporters of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) ransacked a rural market and attacked police with bricks.
"We opened fire in self-defence," district police chief Jamil Ahsan said, adding that one opposition activist was killed and five other demonstrators were wounded.
Four other people were killed elsewhere in Bangladesh as the strike got under way, with small protests erupting across the country and thousands of extra police and paramilitary officers on call.
The BNP and its Islamist allies ordered the strike after last-minute talks between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia late on Saturday failed to defuse the mounting crisis.
Zia rejected Hasina's appeal to call off the strike, issued during a 40-minute phone conversation, which was believed to have been the first time in at least a decade that the two powerful women have spoken.
The opposition has called the strike and protests in a bid to force Hasina's government to resign ahead of elections, due next January, and set up a caretaker administration to oversee the polls.
Zia, who twice served as prime minister, has since Friday branded the government "illegal", citing a legal provision that requires a neutral government to be set up three months before elections.
Hasina said such an arrangement was unconstitutional, proposing instead an all-party interim government led by her to oversee the polls. But the BNP has rejected the proposal, claiming it would allow Hasina to rig results.
Saturday's phone talks came a day after tensions spiked as opposition supporters clashed with the ruling party and police in cities and towns across the nation, leaving at least seven people dead and hundreds injured.
In Dhaka yesterday, opposition supporters burned buses and exploded more than a dozen small bombs, while police retaliated with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Shops, businesses and schools were shut, due to fears of violence in the streets.
Security was tight in the capital, with about 10,000 paramilitaries and police on call to prevent clashes, Dhaka police spokesman Masudur Rahman said.
Two ruling party supporters were beaten and stabbed to death by opposition supporters, police said, while separately two activists from the country's largest Islamic party were also killed.
On Saturday night an activist from the Jamaat-e-Islami party, a key ally of the BNP, was also shot dead during clashes with police in the western city of Rajshahi.
Deputy law minister Quamrul Islam blamed the opposition for the fighting, telling a ruling party rally in Dhaka that "we wanted to talk, but they chose the path of violence".
But BNP spokesman Rizvi Ahmed accused the government of ordering police to attack its peaceful demonstrations, adding that the party was still open to talks if Hasina agreed to set up a neutral government.