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At least 18 killed, polling booths firebombed as Bangladesh votes Opposition announces 48-hour general strike starting Monday

DHAKA, Jan 5, (Agencies): Thousands of protesters firebombed polling stations and at least 18 people were killed as violence flared across Bangladesh Sunday during a walkover election boycotted by the opposition. Police said they had opened fire at protesters as they torched more than 200 polling stations and stole and burnt ballot papers to try to sabotage the poll. Two of those killed were beaten to death while guarding polling stations in northern districts but most of the victims were opposition supporters. “We’ve seen thousands of protesters attack polling booths and our personnel at a number of locations with petrol bombs,” Syed Abu Sayem, police chief of the northern district of Bogra, told AFP. “The situation is extremely volatile,” he added after describing how thousands of ballot papers had been ceremoniously set on fire.

Most of the other victims were opposition activists shot by police, while a driver died of his injuries from a petrol bomb attack on his truck. Police put the overall toll at 18 although the opposition said 22 of its supporters were killed. “We were forced to open fire after thousands of them attacked us with guns and small bombs,” said Mokbul Hossain, police chief in the northern town of Parbatipur. “It was a coordinated attack. They managed to seize some ballot papers and they tried to steal our weapons.” In the capital Dhaka, whose streets were largely deserted apart from thousands of troops, police confirmed three petrol bombings of polling stations. Tens of thousands of troops were deployed across the country after around 150 people had been killed in the build-up to the election.

The ruling Awami League has accused the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of orchestrating the violence and has kept its leader under de facto house arrest. The opposition had demanded that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina make way for a neutral caretaker government before the election to ensure no ballot-rigging, a system in force in the past. It staged weeks of deadly protests, including transport blockades and calls for strikes, to press its demands. In a statement, opposition spokesman Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir praised Bangladeshis for “rejecting this meaningless” election. Vote counting began after polls closed Sunday. Official results are expected Monday morning.

The opposition announced a 48-hour general strike starting Monday morning to demand that the election results be voided. H.T. Imam, co-chairman of the ruling Awami League’s Election Steering Committee, accused the opposition of using violence to create panic among people. “Still, I congratulate people who ignored such threats and came to polling stations,” he told reporters. Election Commission officials said attackers torched at least 127 school buildings across Bangladesh in overnight attacks. The buildings were to be used as polling stations. Voting was suspended in at least 390 of the country’s 18,208 polling centers because of attacks, the commission said.

The opposition boycott led to 153 of Parliament’s 300 elected seats going uncontested. Hasina’s refusal to quit and name an independent caretaker administration, which resulted in the boycott by opposition parties, meant the election was mainly a contest among candidates from the ruling party and its allies. Awami League candidates ran unchallenged in more than half of Bangladesh’s 300 parliamentary constituencies.

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