Updated: 12/29/2013 13:06 | By Agence France-Presse

Bangladesh opposition set for mass march against polls

Bangladesh opposition protesters were set to march on Dhaka Sunday in a bid to derail controversial January 5 elections, despite a police ban amid fears of widespread violence.

Bangladesh opposition set for mass march against polls

Police detain a suspected activist from the Hizb-ut-Tahrir group, a banned Islamist militant organisation, during a rally in Dhaka, on December 27, 2013

The opposition, which is boycotting the polls, has been predicting that up to a million people will descend on the capital in an effort to pressurise Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to halt what it describes as a "farcical" election.

Police have banned the so-called "March for Democracy" amid fears that the rally would become a focal point for more unrest after what has already been the deadliest year for political violence in the country's history.

Police have detained more than 1,000 opposition supporters as a "preventive measure", while authorities have suspended Dhaka-bound bus, ferry and train services, virtually cutting off the city from the rest of the country.

"It seems the government has imposed an undeclared shutdown in the country," Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, a leading opposition figure, said late Saturday.

Alamgir urged supporters to defy the ban and march to central Dhaka where Khaleda Zia, leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), was expected to address a mass rally on Sunday afternoon.  

It was unclear whether Zia would herself make it to the rally, with supporters accusing authorities of keeping her under de facto house arrest since Wednesday.

Five sand-laden trucks have been parked in front of the gate of Zia's residence, apparently in a bid to prevent her leaving, an AFP photographer at the scene said.

Police and security forces have conducted nationwide raids, searching trains and buses to arrest opposition supporters. They have also set up check posts for passengers and commuters at the entry points to Dhaka.

Security has been tight in the city with around 11,000 officers and the elite Rapid Action Battalion patrolling the streets and key flashpoints, Dhaka police spokesman Masudur Rahman told AFP

The opposition headquarters at Nayapaltan neighbourhood in central Dhaka has been sealed by a barbed wire barricade manned by police and elite forces. 

Rahman said the arrests were made ahead of the protests "to prevent acts of violence and sabotages".

"We've not approved the BNP protests. So anyone trying to gather outside BNP office can face arrest," he said.

Around 100 passengers were taken off a Dhaka-bound train in northern Tangail district as police searched the carriages for Islamists accused of launching attacks against police in recent months.

Bus operators, meanwhile, said they had halted their services to the capital while ferries remained moored at river stations.

"We suspended our services following government orders," Mohammad Faruq Talukder, owner of the country's largest inter-city bus operator, Sohag Motors, told AFP.

Zia's party has organised a series of crippling national strikes and transport blockades in recent weeks in a bid to halt the elections.

The strikes have done further damage to an economy already reeling from the impact on the crucial garment sector from a factory collapse in April which sparked widespread industrial unrest.

The opposition has been demanding that Hasina stand down and allow a neutral caretaker government to oversee the polls as in previous elections, but she has refused to yield.

The credibility of the polls has been further undermined by the refusal of foreign countries and organisations to send observers.

Violence triggered by the election protests and war crime trials of opposition leaders have left at least 273 people dead in 2013 -- the deadliest year of political upheaval since the country's independence in 1971.

With Hasina's Awami League certain of victory, the elections are seen as likely to further widen the political divide in a country which has endured nearly two dozen coups in its short history.

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