Fear stalks Bangladesh as vote 'farce' begins

Fear stalks Bangladesh as vote 'farce' begins

DHAKA - Bangladesh voted Sunday in a violence-plagued election that will end in certain victory for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina after the opposition boycotted the "farcical" contest.

Around 150 people have been killed since the opposition launched a campaign against the election in October while more than a thousand opposition leaders and activists have been detained in a crackdown denounced by rights groups.

A huge security operation involving 50,000 troops has been mounted to ensure the eight hours of voting passes off smoothly after it began at 8:00 am (0200 GMT).

But after scores of arson attacks on polling stations and with the opposition trying to enforce a general strike, officials admit turnout could be worse than the previous low of 26 per cent in a rigged 1996 election.

AFP correspondents in the capital Dhaka said there was no sign of queues outside the polling stations when they opened and fresh reports of deadly violence will have only added to the fear factor.

Police said that a polling officer was beaten to death in the northern district of Thakurgaon on Saturday night while a truck driver died after his vehicle was firebombed on Friday.

Hundreds of buses and other vehicles have been firebombed in recent weeks with the opposition and government blaming each other for the violence.

"Voting is a right, I am exercising that right, but there is no sense of celebration today," said Nurul Islam, as he voted in Mirpur, a Dhaka suburb.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), whose leader Khaleda Zia has been confined to her home, decided to boycott the poll after Hasina refused to stand aside and let it be organised by a neutral caretaker government.

With the opposition charging that the election lacks all credibility, analysts warn it will likely fuel violence in a country that has already seen its bloodiest year of political unrest since Bangladesh broke free from Pakistan in 1971.

The former East Pakistan is the world's eighth most populous nation but also one of the poorest in Asia and more turmoil will undermine efforts to improve the lot of its 154 million population. A third of them live below the poverty line.

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