Dhaka: Bangladeshi authorities detained over 700 opposition activists trying to gather in the capital in defiance of a ban on a protest march called on Sunday by the BNP to derail the January 05 polls.
The country was today under virtual siege as transport services shut down overnight following a government advisory and people braced for fresh political violence. Army and paramilitary personnel patrolled city streets amidst the tense face-off between the BNP-led 18-party opposition alliance and the Awami League.
Police raided homes of opposition supporters and trains and took into custody more than 700 activists, police officials told the media.
Reports said activists of Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its ally Jamaat-e-Islami began moving towards Dhaka yesterday evening, well ahead of the march in order to avoid interception by police.
They planned to reach Dhaka under cover of wedding parties as many marriages are set to take place in the capital on the weekend.
BNP leader Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir accused the Awami League-led interim government of creating a blockade to prevent the opposition activists gathering in Dhaka.
"It seems like section 144 has been imposed countrywide, an undeclared shutdown by the government itself," he said.
Law enforcement officials were intimidating people in hotels and restaurants and tracking down protesters from outside Dhaka, Alamgir claimed.
At least 97 passengers were taken off a Dhaka-bound train in Tangail after policemen searched it for Islamists accused of attacking police in recent months. All Dhaka-bound trains from northern districts were halted at Tangail.
"Fear of sabotage after the recent distasteful experience forced us to take some precautions causing schedule disruptions...Train services between Dhaka and Chittagong, however, are running," a railway spokesman told a news agency.
Bus and and ferry operators said that they have stopped services to and from Dhaka due to "security concerns" after a government advisory.
Hundreds of Bangladeshis returning from India were stranded at the western land port of Benapole, with no buses to carry them home.
Pro-Awami League transport associations called a two-day strike to protest vandalism during protests by the opposition in the past few weeks. BNP chief Khaleda Zia exhorted her supporters to rally in the capital Dhaka tomorrow and to defy the ban on her "march for democracy".
"I urge all able bodied countrymen cutting across their affiliation, religion and class to join the rally on December 29," she said earlier, warning of "tougher actions" if the government obstructs the marchers.
There was doubt whether Zia would be able to take part in tomorrow`s protest, with supporters alleging that authorities were keeping her under de-facto house arrest.
The BNP is boycotting the polls and political violence during nationwide strikes and blockades enforced by the opposition have left nearly 130 people dead and crippled the economy since November.
The BNP has refused to field candidates, saying polls under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will be rigged - an accusation the premier strongly rejects.
Opposition activists have been staging protests since late October to force Hasina to step down so that a non-party caretaker government can be installed to oversee the election.
Hasina has refused to accept the opposition`s demands and ruled out any possibility of rescheduling the polls, saying the BNP has "missed the election train".
However, she said she would consider dissolving the parliament formed after the polls and holding another election if the BNP shuns violence and severs ties with the Jamaat.
Army troops have been deployed across Bangladesh to "aid civil administration" in maintaining peace and order ahead of the controversial elections.
The BNP says 30 central leaders of the party and its associated bodies were arrested in the past one month alone while the police manhunt forced most others to go into hiding.
Earlier this week, Dhaka Metropolitan Police declared a bounty of 1 lakh Takas on arsonists and vandals trying to set fire or vandalise vehicles.
The statutory National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) yesterday said the incidents of violence across the county should not be considered political, but as "terrorist acts against the state and its people".In the latest incidence of violence, suspected opposition activists hurled several patrol bombs at the home of Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad in western Chuadanga in a pre-dawn attack today. Police said no one was hurt in the attack as the house was vacant.
Meanwhile, Awami League leaders warned of retaliatory measures if opposition activists defy the ban and join tomorrow`s protest march.
"We will not attack first...We will stay organised and when they (opposition activists) attack, we will resist them through a counter attack," senior Awami League leader and Communications Minister Obaidul Quader said at a party meeting.
Law enforcement officials will show restrain during political rallies but the Awami League will resist the opposition "with sticks and continue to do so until the elections on January 5", said Junior Law Minister Quamrul Islam.
Hasina today launched the Awami League`s manifesto for the polls, vowing to punish "anarchists" behind recent violence.
Serious questions have been raised about the credibility of the polls as the BNP and one of Hasina`s former allies, Jatiya Party, are boycotting the polls.
The fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party, a key ally of the BNP, has been disqualified from contesting polls by the Bangladesh High Court, which said it opposes secularism.
In the absence of any credible opposition, 154 Awami League candidates are set to be elected uncontested to the 300-member Parliament.
Top civil society figures today asked the government to postpone the January 5 elections saying that it would violate people`s constitutional rights of voting.
"This election will not bring any good result to the country, rather will deepen the crisis," leading economist Rehman Sobhan said.
Eminent lawyer Rafique-ul Huq said, "The ongoing situation will continue if the two leaders (Hasina and Khaleda) do not come to a compromise."
The civil society groups insisted that there is still time for deferring the polls since Constitution permits national elections up to 90 days after the dissolution of Parliament. That period expires only on January 24.