Bangladesh to deploy military to stem poll violence

DHAKA - Bangladesh said Friday it will deploy thousands of troops next week in an effort to contain deadly political violence ahead of controversial general elections slated for January 5.

Heavily armed troops have already fanned out in major trouble spots across the country but "official deployment" will start December 26, the Election Commission said.

"The army troops will be deployed between December 26 and January 9 across the country," Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad told reporters.

He did not say how many troops will be deployed but local media put the number at around 50,000.

The move comes amid mounting tension in the country with the opposition and a key ruling party ally boycotting the parliamentary polls. The government insists the vote will go ahead as planned.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies have been staging protests since late October to force Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to step down so that a neutral caretaker government can oversee the election.

Hasina refuses to accept the arrangement, which was in place during previous national polls, and on Thursday ruled out any possibility of rescheduling the elections despite mounting diplomatic pressure.

Three rounds of UN-brokered last-minute talks between the government and opposition have failed to resolve the dispute, plunging the nation into its worst crisis in decades.

Violence over the planned elections has left more than 100 people dead since November.

A series of strikes and nationwide transport blockades have crippled the economy, affecting millions of poor farmers and the urban middle class in the impoverished South Asian nation.

The Election Commission said the troops were being deployed in addition to security forces that include paramilitary border guards, who this week launched a crackdown on protesters after weeks of violence.

Officials said Thursday at least 118 protesters were detained in joint operations by the police, the elite Rapid Action Battalion and the border guards amid a series of transport blockades by the opposition.

Those detained are mainly from the BNP and its Islamist ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami party.

The BNP has refused to field candidates for the January election, saying the vote under Hasina will be rigged - an accusation the premier strongly rejects.

Jamaat, the largest Islamist party which has been barred from contesting the polls, is also furious with the government after one of its leaders was executed last week for crimes during the 1971 independence war.

Protests over the polls and the war crime trials have left at least 264 people dead since January, making this year the bloodiest in Bangladesh's history.

The opposition, which launched a 72-hour nationwide blockade Tuesday, has announced a new four-day blockade starting Saturday in their bid to topple Hasina and derail the January vote.