New clashes on final day of Bangladesh strike

DHAKA (AFP) - Riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets during clashes with opposition supporters on the third day of a general strike in Bangladesh on Tuesday as tensions rose ahead of a court ruling over a 2009 mutiny.

A senior officer was seriously injured in the capital Dhaka when protesters hurled a small explosive device at a group of riot police in one of a series of incidents reported across the country.

At least 16 people have been killed in political violence since Friday when the opposition began a push to force Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to quit and let an interim administration organise elections due in January.

After a series of mass rallies at the weekend, the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its Islamist allies then enforced a three-day general strike, which ends later Tuesday.

But the end of the shutdown is unlikely to herald an easing of tensions in a country with a long history of coups as a court in Dhaka is due to pronounce its verdict Wednesday against 823 soldiers accused of taking part in a mass mutiny soon after Hasina came to power.

BNP leader Khaleda Zia, who has twice served as premier, has long been regarded as close to the military as her husband was a former head of the army who became president in 1977 in the aftermath of a coup.

Zia, who has a notoriously toxic relationship with Hasina, has branded the current government "illegal" and says that Bangladeshi law requires a neutral government to be set up three months before elections.

Hasina has instead proposed an all-party interim government led by her to oversee the January polls, saying that previous caretaker governments have paved the way for a military takeover.

Bangladesh has been ruled alternately by Hasina and Zia since 1991, although a military-backed government ran the country between 2007 and 2008.

Since independence in 1971, Bangladesh has seen at least 19 coups although the power of the military has diminished in recent years.

While no senior officers were implicated in the 2009 mutiny, that uprising fuelled the sense that many people serving in the military were intrinsically opposed to Hasina. More than 50 people were killed in the mutiny.

Lead prosecutor Baharul Islam told AFP that his legal team was expecting judges to hand down the death penalty on Wednesday against most of the accused, who include a former BNP lawmaker.

"There were 654 witnesses. About 100 of those who have been indicted directly took part in the killing," he said, adding a Dhaka Metropolitan court would deliver the verdict Wednesday.

While the nation has a long history of political violence, this year has been the deadliest since the former East Pakistan broke away from Islamabad and gained independence.

At least 150 people have been killed since January after a controversial court began handing down death sentences on Islamist leaders allied to ex-premier Zia.