Bangladesh police clash with protesters demanding postponement of elections

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The Independent Online

Police in Bangladesh's capital used tear gas, rubber bullets and batons yesterday to disperse thousands of stone-throwing protesters demanding electoral reforms and postponed elections, witnesses and news reports said.

The clashes left at least 300 people injured, including several policemen, in Dhaka and adjoining areas, the United News of Bangladesh news agency reported. Police officials declined to comment on the injuries.

The violence came on the second day of a crippling three-day nationwide transportation blockade, imposed by a 19-party alliance led by former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

The alliance has claimed that the voters' list for the January 22 election has flaws including fake names. The group wants the poll delayed until a problem-free list is available.

In an effort to force its demands, the alliance said it planned to keep blocking roads, railways and river routes on Tuesday to isolate Dhaka from the rest of the country.

But the country's interim leader, President Iajuddin Ahmed, has said he could not change the constitutionally mandated voting date. The Election Commission agreed.

"We must hold the polls on schedule to meet constitutional obligations," Acting Chief Election Commissioner Mahfuzur Rahman told reporters.

Under the constitution, the interim government must hold the election within 90 days from Oct. 29, the day it took office because former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's five-year term expired.

Meanwhile, US Ambassador Patricia Butenis on Monday urged the country's leaders to try to find a solution to the impasse.

"We have difficulty finding an one-side election credible," Butenis told reporters after meeting former military ruler Hussain Muhammad Ershad, whose Jatiya Party belongs to Hasina's alliance.

On Monday, protesters halted trains by sitting on railroad tracks in several places outside Dhaka, railway officials said on condition of anonymity because they are not permitted to speak to the media.

In central Dhaka about 5,000 protesters tried to overrun barbed-wire barricades manned by police, triggering clashes that left several people injured.

In the congested old part of the city, police used rubber bullets to disperse stone-throwing protesters who detonated several homemade bombs, Channel-I television reported.

Streets were empty on Monday apart from a few buses, three-wheel taxis and rickshaws that had defied the blockade, providing the only transport for the capital's 10 million residents. Schools and businesses were closed.

Clashes between alliance supporters and security forces also were reported in other parts of Dhaka and its outskirts, where dozens were wounded and several activists were arrested, news reports said.

Protesters doused a parked bus with petrol and then set it on fire, and damaged several other vehicles in the industrial town of Savar just outside Dhaka, the TV channel said.

In Keraniganj, troops were called in to patrol the streets after activists clashed with police and paramilitary forces, injuring dozens, including two policemen, the United News of Bangladesh news agency said.

At least 100 people, including police, were injured in similar clashes across the capital city on Sunday, the first day of protests that cut the city off from rest of the country, Dhaka newspapers reported.

On Sunday, police used batons, tear gas and rubber bullets on stick-wielding, stone-throwing demonstrators.

About 12,000 security forces patrolled Dhaka's streets amid fears of a repeat in violence that has marred previous political protests and left at least 34 dead since October.

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