Bangladesh opposition set for mass march against polls

Bangladeshi police detain a suspected activist of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a banned Islamist militant organisation in Dhaka on Dec 27, 2013, as Hizb-ut Tahrir supporters attempted a demonstration march following Friday prayers. Bangladesh opposition protester
Bangladeshi police detain a suspected activist of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a banned Islamist militant organisation in Dhaka on Dec 27, 2013, as Hizb-ut Tahrir supporters attempted a demonstration march following Friday prayers. Bangladesh opposition protesters were set for a mass march on Dhaka on Sunday, Dec 29, 2013 in a bid to derail the controversial Jan 5 elections, despite a police ban amid fears of widespread violence. -- PHOTO: AFP

DHAKA (AFP) - Bangladesh opposition protesters were set for a mass march on Dhaka on Sunday, Dec 29, 2013 in a bid to derail the controversial Jan 5 elections, despite a police ban amid fears of widespread violence.

The opposition, which is boycotting the polls, has been predicting that up to a million people will descend on the capital in an effort to pressure Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to halt what it describes as a "farcical" election.

Police have banned the so-called "March for Democracy" amid fears that the rally would become a focal point for more unrest after what has already been the deadliest year for political violence in the country's history.

Police have detained more than 750 opposition supporters as a "preventive measure", while the authorities have suspended Dhaka-bound bus, ferry and train services, virtually cutting off the city from the rest of the country.

"It seems the government has imposed an undeclared shutdown in the country," Mr Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, a leading opposition figure, said late Saturday.

Mr Alamgir urged supporters to defy the ban and march to central Dhaka where Ms Khaleda Zia, leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, was expected to address a mass rally on Sunday afternoon.

It was unclear whether Ms Zia would herself make it to the rally, with supporters accusing authorities of keeping her under de facto house arrest since Wednesday.

Police and security forces have conducted nationwide raids, searched trains and buses to arrest opposition supporters.

The arrests were made ahead of the protests "to prevent acts of violence and sabotages", Dhaka police spokesman Masudur Rahman told Agence France-Presse.

Around 100 passengers were taken off a Dhaka-bound train in northern Tangail district as police searched the carriages for Islamists accused of launching attacks against police in recent months.

Bus operators, meanwhile, said they had halted their Dhaka-bound services while ferries remained anchored in river stations.

"We suspended our services following government orders," Mr Mohammad Faruq Talukder, owner of the country's largest inter-city bus operator, Sohag Motors, told Agence France-Presse.

Ms Zia's party has organised a series of crippling national strikes and transport blockades in recent weeks in a bid to halt the elections.

The strikes have done further damage to an economy already reeling from the impact on the crucial garment sector from a factory collapse in April which sparked widespread industrial unrest.

The opposition have been demanding that Ms Hasina stand down and allow a neutral caretaker government to oversee the polls as in previous contests, but she has refused to yield.

The credibility of the polls has been further undermined by the refusal of foreign countries and organisations to send observers.

Violence triggered by the election protests and war crime trials of opposition leaders have left at least 273 people dead in 2013 - the deadliest year of political upheaval since the country's independence in 1971.

With Ms Hasina's Awami League certain of victory, the elections are seen as likely to further widen the political divide in a country which has endured nearly two dozen coups in its short history.