DHAKA - Bangladesh’s capital was cut off from the rest of the country Monday, with transport services into Dhaka halted to thwart the second day of a protest march against next week’s elections.
With the opposition leader Khaleda Zia under de facto house arrest since last Wednesday, Britain’s high commissioner became the first envoy to meet her, a day after police barred her from leaving the residence to address a rally.
“Robert Gibson went to meet Zia at her residence in Gulshan,” an embassy spokesman told AFP without elaborating, as scores of police stood guard outside Zia’s home in an upscale Dhaka neighbourhood.
As violence flared elsewhere in the country leaving one dead, bus, ferry and train services were again suspended and roadblocks kept in place around the capital to stop opposition supporters travelling to Dhaka for the banned march.
“All the buses were turned back by the government authorities as the opposition extended the march to Monday,” Faruq Talukdar, owner of the country’s largest bus service Sohag Motors, told AFP.
Dhaka-bound train services were suspended at the country’s second largest city of Chittagong, platform officer Omar Faruq told AFP, as part of transport disruptions that started on Saturday. Ferry services from the main coastal city of Barisal were halted.
The opposition and its allies called the march in hopes that up to a million people would descend on central Dhaka, in a last-ditch attempt to force Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to quit and call off the January 5 election.
Thousands of officers were patrolling the city’s streets on Monday amid fears the march could become a focal point for more unrest, after what has already been the deadliest year for political violence.
Two people were killed at the start of the march on Sunday during clashes between bomb-throwing opposition supporters and police who responded with shotguns and water cannon.
A local council leader was shot dead Monday during clashes involving several hundred protesters in the southern district of Satkhira, police inspector Azam Khan told AFP. Protesters armed with guns attacked police who retaliated with rifle fire in Satkhira, a stronghold of the country’s largest Islamist party which is allied to the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Hasina’s ruling Awami League party pledged to go ahead with the election as planned despite a boycott by the BNP and its allies, and a party spokesman mocked the march as a “damp squib”.
Opposition parties, fearing the vote could be rigged, have been demanding that Hasina stand down and allow a neutral caretaker government to oversee the election, but she has refused to yield.
Since October the opposition has called a series of crippling national strikes, protests and transport blockades.
Violence triggered by the election protests, and by demonstrations against war crimes trials for opposition leaders, has killed 276 people this year.
Police said three senior BNP officials including an opposition lawmaker were briefly detained and later released as they tried to meet Zia, a two-time former prime minister.
Police say they have arrested some 1,200 protesters in the past four days as part of “preventive measures” against the march.
The government late Sunday detained a senior BNP official on charges of arson, just minutes after he told reporters that the protests would continue until the election.
“A large number of our leaders have now been arrested including four lawmakers, four members of our highest decision-making body, four secretaries and a huge lot of officials and supporters,” said BNP vice president Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury.
“Almost every BNP leader and official has also been implicated in false charges,” he added.
The credibility of the polls has been further undermined by the refusal of foreign countries and organisations to send observers.