By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Bangladesh police reported one officer and a protester were killed and dozens of people were injured Saturday as violence broke out during rallies by opposition political parties who want the ruling Awami League to appoint a caretaker government ahead of the expected January general election.
The Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) held planned rallies about two km. (1.2 miles) apart while BNP ally Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami defied a police ban and staged its own gathering near Dhaka’s Motijheel area.
“The police and the Awami League armed cadres attacked our peaceful rally when our secretary general, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, was addressing the crowd,” BNP spokesman Zahir Uddin Swapan told BenarNews.
“We have been attacked. We have not attacked anyone. The attack was orchestrated to create a justification for launching a police crackdown on us,” said Swapan, a former BNP lawmaker.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal and a police spokesman alleged the opposition parties were responsible for the violence.
“We had prior information that they (BNP-Jamaat) would stage a sabotage. And they did it,” Khan told BenarNews.
“They attacked the police hospital in Rajarbagh, killed one on-duty policeman, torched two buses and police installations. They stopped vehicles carrying women activists of the Awami League and beat up 25 of them mercilessly,” Khan said.
Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) spokesman Faruk Hossain told BenarNews that the BNP-Jamaat “opposition attackers” torched dozens of vehicles including an ambulance, microbuses and motorcycles in more than a dozen spots in Dhaka.
“The fighting continued for several hours,” he said. “At least 50 police personnel were injured and many have been admitted to different hospitals.”
By Saturday evening, the violence had ended.
Officials identified the dead officer as Constable Aminul Parvez, a member of DMP Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Branch.
A BNP organizer said Shamim Mollah, a leader of the party’s youth front, Jubo Dal, was killed during a clash with officers.
A police hospital official, meanwhile, claimed Mollah might have suffered a heart attack.
“There was no sign of injury to his body,” Md. Rezaul Hayat, director of Rajarbagh central police hospital, told journalists.
Witnesses said at around 1 p.m., Awami League and BNP activists clashed at the Kakrail intersection and at the Nightingale crossing later in the afternoon. Police got involved, firing rubber bullets, lobbing tear gas and using water cannons to disperse the crowds.
The home ministry called in members of the paramilitary Border Guard Bangladesh to assist in quelling violence in Kakrail neighborhood after a traffic police outpost was set on fire.
Dozens of journalists and activists were injured, according to rally organizers and police.
Khan said the ruling party was not involved in the attacks, adding those responsible must face legal action.
“There was no Awami League gathering near their rally,” he said. “Actually, Awami League leaders and activists were beaten up by the BNP-Jamaat.”
The U.S. Embassy in Dhaka issued a statement condemning the violence.
“The reported killing of a police officer, a political activist and the burning of a hospital are unacceptable, as is violence against civilians, including journalists. We call for calm and restraint on all sides. We will be reviewing all violent incidents for possible visa restrictions,” the statement said.
Series of events
Swapan said nearly 3 million BNP supporters gathered for the rally, for what he announced would be the first in a series of events to force the administration of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to allow a caretaker government ahead of the vote. Hasina and her Awami League have rejected that demand.
Police estimated the BNP crowd at 100,000, according to wire service reports.
BNP organizers on Saturday called for a daylong countrywide general strike on Sunday to protest actions by police and the ruling party to disrupt what was supposed to be a peaceful rally.
“We urge the people to observe a dawn-to-dusk hartal on Sunday in protest of the government attack on us. We will announce the next course of actions in the coming days,” Swapan said.
Awami League leaders countered by announcing members would be holding their own “peaceful” rally across the nation on Sunday.
On Thursday, BNP officials complained that police were arresting BNP leaders and activists ahead of the rally.
The BNP central office said at least 830 people had been arrested during the last week. Khairul Kabir Khokon, BNP’s joint secretary general, was taken into custody by detectives on Thursday morning.
DMP said the number was lower, noting that at least 311 BNP leaders and activists had been arrested between Oct. 21 and 25.
Ahead of the rallies, an Awami League official did not rule out the use of violence.
“If the BNP comes to attack us, then we will not sit quietly. If the peace rally is attacked, our activists will not sit idle. A counterattack must happen,” Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader told reporters on Thursday.