DHAKA (AFP) - Tens of thousands of troops were to be deployed across Bangladesh on Thursday in a bid to contain deadly political violence ahead of elections which are being boycotted by the opposition.
With Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina determined that the January 5 general election goes ahead despite claims that it will be a farce, troops are being sent to nearly every corner of the country at the end of its deadliest year for political violence since independence.
The deployments are expected to further infuriate the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party which called for a mass march on the capital Dhaka beginning on December 29 in a bid to scupper the polls.
Election Commission spokesman S.M. Asaduzzaman said that troops would be deployed in at least 59 of the country's 64 districts.
"They'll be used as a striking force if there is any violence and they will patrol important areas, streets and highways," he told AFP.
While a small number of troops has already begun taking up positions, an army spokesman confirmed the mass deployment would begin Thursday.
He did not say how many troops will be deployed but local media put the number at around 50,000.
The BNP and its leader Zhaleda Zia has condemned the military deployment, saying it would pit the armed forces against the people.
The BNP is at the head of an 18-party opposition alliance which has refused to take part in the polls after Hasina blocked their demands to stand down and let a neutral caretaker government oversee the contest.
Two other left-wing parties have also pulled out of the election as has a faction led by former dictator Hussain Muhammad Ershad, who had been an ally of Hasina's ruling Awami League.
The boycotts have highlighted the growing political polarisation in a country that won its independence from Pakistan in 1971.
While Bangladesh has had a deeply troubled history since independence, with more than a dozen coups, this year has been the bloodiest since it broke free from its former rulers in Islamabad.
Protests over the polls and over the death sentences handed down to Islamists convicted of war crime during the 1971 independence conflict have left at least 268 people dead since January.
A constable was burned to death in a petrol bomb attack on a police vehicle Tuesday night while two more people succumbed to their burn injuries Wednesday.
Much of the violence has been blamed on supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's largest Islamist party which has been barred from fielding candidates on January 5.
Three rounds of UN-brokered last-minute talks between the government and opposition have failed to resolve the dispute between the Awami League and the BNP whose leaders despise each other.
The United States, European Union and the Commonwealth countries have announced they will not send observers to the elections, seriously denting its credibility.
Strikes and blockades have crippled the economy, affecting millions of poor farmers and the urban middle class in the impoverished South Asian nation.