Tens of thousands of troops have been deployed across Bangladesh in a bid to stem political violence ahead of next month’s elections, which the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has boycotted.
Violence has gripped the country as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her ruling Awami League press ahead with the January 5 vote.
Election Commission spokesman SM Asaduzzaman said on Thursday that troops would be stationed in at least 59 of the country’s 64 districts from Thursday until January 9.
“They’ll be used as a striking force if there is any violence and they will patrol important areas, streets and highways,” he told the AFP news agency.
Military spokesman Muhammad Reza-ul Karim said in a statement that the mass deployment had come at the behest of the Commission “in an effort to ensure free, fair and peaceful elections”.
There is no exact figure on how many troops are being deployed, but local media have put the number at about 50,000.
Virtual house arrest
Meanwhile, BNP has said that its leader Khaleda Zia was being kept under virtual house arrest after she called for a mass march aimed at scuppering the parliamentary elections.
The police are not allowing anyone, including party leaders and activists, to meet her. It is part of a government move to foil the December 29 march for democracy
“Since yesterday she has been under virtual house arrest,” BNP vice-president Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury told AFP.
“The police are not allowing anyone, including party leaders and activists, to meet her. It is part of a government move to foil the December 29 march for democracy,” he said.
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its leader Khaleda Zia have condemned the military deployment.
It leads an opposition alliance of 18 parties refusing to participate in the election after Prime Minister Hasina rejected calls to stand down and let a neutral caretaker government oversee the contest.
Two other left-wing parties have also withdrawn from the election, so too has a faction led by Hussain Muhammad Ershad, who had been an ally of Hasina’s ruling Awami League.
The political boycotts add to the woes of the country, which is one of the most populous and poorest in Asia.
It has had more than a dozen coups since it gained independence from Pakistan in 1971 and this year has been marked by unrest over elections and the death sentences handed down to Islamists convicted of war crimes during the 1971 conflict.
At least 268 people have died since January and much of the violence has been blamed on supporters of the political party Jamaat-e-Islami, which has been barred from fielding candidates.
Three rounds of UN-brokered talks between the government and opposition have failed to resolve the dispute between the Awami League and the BNP.
The United States, European Union and the Commonwealth countries have announced they will not send observers to the election.
The BNP has called for a mass march on the capital Dhaka beginning on December 29 to stop what she calls a “farcical” election.