Three killed as political strike grips Bangladesh

DHAKA (AFP) - Three people were killed in nationwide clashes as Bangladesh's opposition on Sunday began a strike to demand the prime minister quit and make way for polls under a caretaker government.

Police said officers opened fire at protesters in the western town of Nagarkanda after some 3,000 supporters of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) ransacked a rural market and attacked police with bricks.

"We opened fire in self-defence," district police chief Jamil Ahsan told AFP, adding one opposition activist was killed during the clashes there.

Two other people were killed elsewhere in Bangladesh as the three-day strike got underway, with small protests erupting across the country and thousands of extra police and paramilitary officers deployed.

The BNP and its Islamist allies ordered the strike to go ahead after last-minute talks between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia late on Saturday failed to defuse a mounting crisis.

Zia rejected Hasina's appeal to call off the strike issued during a 40-minute phone conversation - believed to be the first time in at least a decade that the two "battling begums" have spoken. "Begum" is an honorific for a Muslim woman of rank.

The opposition has called the strike and protests in a bid to force Hasina's government to resign ahead of elections due in January 2014, and set up a caretaker administration of technocrats to oversee the polls.

Zia, who has twice served as premier, has since Friday branded the government "illegal", citing a legal provision that requires a neutral government to be set up three months before elections.

Hasina said such an arrangement is unconstitutional, proposing an all-party interim government led by her instead to oversee the January polls. But the BNP has rejected the proposal, claiming it would allow Hasina to rig results.

Saturday's phone talks came a day after tensions spiked as opposition supporters clashed with the ruling party and police in cities and towns across the nation, leaving at least seven people dead and hundreds injured.

In the capital Dhaka on Sunday, scores of opposition supporters were injured after police fired tear gas and rubber bullets during small-scale protests throughout the city, as shops and other businesses as well as schools were shut in support of the strike.

In the western town of Avoynagar, opposition supporters beat a ruling party activist to death, according to local police chief Joydev Bhadra.

An Islamist activist allied with the BNP was also shot dead in the western city of Rajshahi during clashes with police ahead of the strike overnight on Saturday, the police said.

"There were 400-500 opposition supporters who exploded small bombs and attacked police," the deputy police commissioner in Rajshahi, Proloy Chisim, told AFP, confirming the shooting death.

Tensions have been rising in Bangladesh since Hasina's ruling Awami League party rejected an October 24 deadline set by the BNP for accepting its demands.

The Awami League instead called on its activists to take to the streets to face down the opposition.

While the nation has a long history of political violence, this year has been the deadliest since Bangladesh gained independence in 1971.

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

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