Bangladesh votes amid violence, opposition boycott
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Bangladesh headed to the polls on Sunday for an election boycotted by the main opposition, marred by violence that has killed more than 100 people and shunned by international observers.
Police shot dead three protesters while suspected opposition activists stabbed an election official to death and set more than 100 polling stations on fire in a bid to disrupt the voting.
The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party is one of 21 parties boycotting the election. Another, Jamaat-e-Islami, has been banned from fielding candidates.
Police opened fire to stop protesters from seizing a polling centre in northern Rangpur district, killing two people. In a similar incident in neighbouring Nilphamari district, police fired into about two dozens of protesters, leaving one person dead.
Police gave no further details, but Dhaka's Daily Star newspaper said the three men belonged to Jamaat-e-Islami.
Elsewhere, police said suspected opposition activists stabbed to death a polling official, and local media reported that attackers torched more than 127 school buildings across the country in overnight attacks. The buildings were to be used as polling stations.
Some of the worst violence was in the northern district of Bogra, a stronghold of the BNP.
"We've seen thousands of protestors attack polling booths and our personnel at a number of locations with Molotov cocktails and petrol bombs," Bogra's police chief Syed Abu Sayem said.
"So far, they have set fire to 15 polling booths and attacked a police station... The situation is extremely volatile."
The voting began at 8 a.m. but local television stations showed mostly empty polling stations, still wrapped in early morning winter fog.
By midmorning, polling was suspended in at least 120 centres because of attacks, burning of ballots and election materials, an election official said on condition of anonymity as he was not allowed to speak to reporters.
At a polling station in Dhaka's Mirpur district, only 25 out of 24,000 registered voters cast their ballot in the first two hours, with polling officials saying fear of violence and absence of any strong opposition kept people away.
“I want to go to vote, but I am afraid of violence,” said Hazera Begum, a teacher in Dhaka. “If the situation is normal and my neighbours go, I may go.”
The Awami League government, headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has accused the BNP, which called the boycott, of orchestrating the violence, and has kept its leader, Khaleda Zia, under de facto house arrest while she fumes over what is effectively a one-party contest.
Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's largest Islamic political party, has been banned by the courts from taking part. Its leaders are either in detention or have gone into hiding. It was a coalition partner in the government Zia led from 2001 to 2006.
The opposition demands that Hasina step down and appoint a neutral caretaker administration to oversee the election. Hasina has refused, which means the election is mainly a contest between candidates from the ruling Awami League and its allies. Awami League candidates are running unchallenged in more than half of the country's 300 parliamentary constituencies.
With the opposition trying to wreck the polls, officials admit turnout could be worse than the previous low of 26 percent in a rigged 1996 election.
Much of the capital, Dhaka, has been cut off from the rest of the country in recent weeks, as the opposition has pressed its demands through general strikes and transportation blockades. Civilians have been caught up in the bloodshed, with activists torching vehicles belonging to motorists who defy the strikes.
The government says it has to hold the elections to keep in line with the constitution, but the BNP, has called them a "scandalous farce".
Bangladesh has a grim history of political violence, including the assassinations of two presidents and 19 failed coup attempts since its independence from Pakistan in 1971.
A local rights group says more than 500 people have been killed since January 2013, a toll that includes victims of clashes between the security forces and Islamists angered by the conviction of some of their leaders for war crimes dating back to the 1971 conflict.
Alarmed by the violence, the United States, European Union and Commonwealth all declined to send election observers.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)
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