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December 31, 2018

14 killed in Bangladesh election violence

Top Story

December 31, 2018

DHAKA: Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appeared headed for a landslide win in a general election on Sunday that was marred by clashes between rival supporters that killed 14 people and opposition claims of rigged voting.

Early results showed Hasina’s Awami League racing into a clear lead, quickly securing 61 seats against one for the opposition -- some by tens of thousands of votes -- according to Channel 24, which is compiling results from around the country. The alliance of parties running against Hasina branded the election "farcical" and urged the country’s election commission to void the results. "We are demanding that a fresh election is held under a neutral government as early as possible," Kamal Hossain, who heads the coalition, told reporters.

Deadly violence and bitter rivalry that marred the election campaign spilled over into voting day, even as authorities imposed tight security with 600,000 troops, police and other security forces deployed across the country.

Ten people were killed in clashes between Awami League and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) supporters, police said, while three men were shot by police who said they were protecting polling booths.

An auxiliary police member was also killed by armed opposition activists, according to officials. Hasina, 71, has been lauded for boosting economic growth in the poor South Asian nation during her decade in power and for welcoming Rohingya refugees fleeing a military crackdown in neighbouring Myanmar.

But critics accuse her of authoritarianism and crippling the opposition -- including arch-rival and BNP leader Khaleda Zia who is serving 17 years in prison on graft charges -- to cling on to power.

The BNP-led opposition alliance on Sunday accused Hasina’s party of using stuffed ballot boxes and other illegal means to fix the result, which was to be officially announced Monday.

BNP spokesman Syed Moazzem Hossain Alal told reporters there were "irregularities" in 221 of the 300 seats contested.

"Voters are not allowed to enter booths. Especially women voters are being forced to vote for the boat," Alal said, referring to the Awami League symbol. Election Commission spokesman S.M. Asaduzzaman told AFP they had "received a few allegations of irregularities" and was investigating.

Authorities shut down high speed internet services during polling "to prevent the spread of rumours" that could trigger unrest. One independent television news channel complained that its broadcasts were blocked.

Sunday’s deaths brought to 18 the official police toll for election violence since the ballot was announced on November 8.

A leading news channel was taken off the air and seven journalists were assaulted. The private Jamuna TV said the action was taken late Saturday. "Cable operators took Jamuna TV off air without giving us any explanation," Fahim Ahmed, the station’s chief news editor, told AFP.

"We are still transmitting. But no one in Bangladesh can see our channel due to the blackout," he said.

The channel’s output can still be viewed online.

The broadcaster, which is owned by Jamuna Group -- one of Bangladesh’s biggest conglomerates, which also runs a newspaper -- is known for its independent coverage.

Salma Islam, a member of the family that owns the group, stood in Sunday’s election as an independent candidate against an influential ruling party businessman.

A top cable operator in Dhaka said Jamuna broadcasts stopped for technical rather than political reasons.

"We are not getting their signal," said S.M Ali Chanchal, owner of cable operator UCS. Jamuna rejected the explanation and insisted their signals were being broadcast as normal.

Authorities have also ordered the country’s mobile operators to shut down 3G and 4G services "to prevent the spread of rumours" that could trigger unrest.

During Sunday’s election seven journalists said they were attacked by pro-government activists in separate scuffles, in which a number of them were injured and their equipment vandalised.

Journalists, including two from AFP, were also prevented from taking images at some polling centres by pro-government activists.

Award-winning photographer Shahidul Alam, who was released from prison last month, was also injured in a scuffle outside a polling centre.

"Some pro-government activists suddenly approached and tried to snatch away our equipment. They also threw indiscriminate punches towards us," photographer Sumon Paul, a close associate of Alam, told AFP.