Bangladesh polls could be delayed amid new violence

Activists of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) run after throwing stones at a bus during a protest in Dhaka

DHAKA - Bangladesh's January 5 election could be postponed, organisers said, after more deadly violence Wednesday between security forces and supporters of opposition parties which are threatening to boycott the polls.

Less than two days after the election commission fixed the date for the polls, senior officials indicated they could be pushed back to accommodate demands by opposition parties who want Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to make way for a neutral caretaker government.

The announcement came on the second day of a 48-hour general strike which has been organised by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and forced the widespread closure of offices and businesses as well as a halt to public transport.

In one of the latest episodes of unrest, dozens of people were injured when a train was derailed near the capital Dhaka.

Ten people have now died in clashes in a series of street battles between the opposition and the security forces since Monday, with three more people dying on Wednesday. More than a hundred have been injured in clashes that broke out in almost all major cities and towns.

Aware that the legitimacy of any polls that is shunned by the opposition will be fatally compromised, election commissioners said they were prepared to push back the date.

"If there is consensus among the parties, the election date can be delayed to another date to make sure that all parties can participate in the polls," Md. Shahnawaz, one of the commissioners, told AFP.

The chief commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad, who announced the polling date in a televised address on Monday night, also gave a strong hint that the election could be postponed.

"There is scope for everything, if an understanding is reached," he told reporters late Tuesday.

Shahnawaz pointed out that elections had been rescheduled on multiple occasions in the past to bring everyone on board, including last time round in December 2008.

"In the last polls, the election schedule was changed at least three times," he said.

Hasina has rejected calls for a caretaker administration and instead formed a multi-party interim cabinet last week which is composed of her allies. She asked the BNP to join the cabinet but it refused.

While previous elections have been held under non-partisan interim governments, Hasina scrapped the arrangement in 2011.

Neighbouring India is among those who have looked on with some alarm at the growing incidence of political violence in Bangladesh.

At least 39 people are known to have died since late October when a coalition of 18 opposition parties launched its latest wave of demonstrations to force Hasina to stand down.

Widespread violence over the death sentences handed down to opposition leaders by a controversial war crimes court earlier this year left more than 150 people dead, making 2013 the most violent since the country gained its independence from Pakistan in 1971.

The latest victims were a woman who succumbed to her injuries suffered when a crude explosive device went off in the capital Dhaka and two protesters who died in separate clashes with officers, police said.

Jahangir Hossain, the police chief for the southern Satkhira region, told AFP that officers had used live fire during clashes with hundreds of supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist ally of the BNP which has been banned from contesting the election.

Protesters also attacked and set fire to a train in the western town of Chuadanga and removed parts of the rail-track near the town of Joypurhat, which lies close to the border with India.

"We have suspended at least 10 train services because of uprooting of rail-tracks at several places," director of state-run Bangladesh Railway Saidur Rahman told AFP.

Rahman said a passenger train had come off the rails early on Wednesday at the town of Gajipur, to the north of Dhaka, after several sleepers had been removed by protesters. No one was killed when the train tilted over but dozens suffered injuries, most of them minor.

On Tuesday authorities reported at least 60 attacks on the rail network, with coaches set alight and track uprooted.