Updated: 12/29/2013 16:43 | By Agence France-Presse

Deadly clashes in Bangladesh as opposition march gets underway

Bangladesh police fired water cannon and shotguns at opposition protesters in the capital Sunday, killing one person, at the start of a banned mass march aimed at thwarting next month's general election.


Deadly clashes in Bangladesh as opposition march gets underway

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

Hundreds of demonstrators, some throwing home-made bombs, battled police as they tried to gather at the opposition's headquarters and other places throughout Dhaka for the so-called "March for Democracy".

Some 11,000 police and elite Rapid Action Battalion officers were patrolling the capital to try to halt the march, Dhaka police spokesman Masudur Rahman told AFP.

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.

Police fired water cannon at protesters outside the national press club, an AFP reporter said.

In Rampura neighbourhood, more than 200 demonstrators threw small bombs at police who responded with shotgun blasts during clashes there that left one person dead, a senior officer said. 

"We fired shotguns to disperse the protesters who exploded dozens of small bombs," assistant police commissioner Nur Alam Siddiqui told AFP. 

One protester who was bleeding was taken to hospital where he died, the officer said.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies have staged weeks of deadly protests, strikes and transport blockades to try to force Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to resign. Dozens of people have been killed. 

The opposition says an election scheduled for January 5 must be held under a neutral caretaker government, as in the past, to  prevent ballot-rigging.

BNP leader Khaleda Zia, a two-time former prime minister and Hasina's arch-rival, has urged supporters to defy the ban on Sunday's march and converge on the capital. 

Police fear the rally will provoke more bloodshed after what has already been the deadliest year for political violence since independence in 1971.

Police spokesman Rahman said the arrests were made before the march "to prevent acts of violence and sabotage".

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

Running battles erupted between police and protesters near the BNP headquarters where Zia was scheduled later Sunday to address the rally, TV footage showed.

Ruling party activists, armed with sticks and rocks, also clashed with opposition protesters outside the press club. 

It was unclear whether Zia would 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 outside the gate of Zia's residence, apparently to prevent her leaving.

The government has described the march as undemocratic, with the deputy law minister Quamrul Islam urging ruling party supporters to resist the protests "with sticks".

Police and other security forces conducted nationwide raids, searching trains and buses to arrest opposition supporters before the march. They have also set up checkpoints at entry points to Dhaka.

Bus operators said they halted services to the capital on government orders while ferries remained moored at river stations.

The national strikes and transport blockades have  further damaged the economy, already reeling from the impact on the crucial garment sector of a factory collapse in April which sparked widespread industrial unrest.

Hasina has refused to yield to demands to step down. But the credibility of the upcoming polls has been further undermined by the refusal of foreign countries and organisations to send observers.

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.

Violence triggered by the election protests, and by demonstrations against war crimes trials for opposition leaders, have left 273 people dead this year.

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