Polling stations are set on fire in Bangladesh and the opposition begins an electoral strike | Elections News

Police say unidentified arsonists have set fire to at least five primary schools, including four polling stations.

Polling booths were set on fire in Bangladesh on the eve of Sunday’s general election, hours after four people were killed in an alleged arson attack on a commuter train.

Police said Saturday that unidentified arsonists set fire to at least five primary schools, including four polling stations.

They were investigating fires in Gazipur, on the outskirts of the capital, Dhaka, suspected to have been set in the middle of the night by those seeking to disrupt the election, which the main opposition party has pledged to boycott.

“We have intensified patrols and remain on high alert,” said Gazipur police chief Kazi Shafiqul Alam.

The electoral commission has asked authorities to increase security around polling stations.

Arsonists also attacked polling booths in the northeastern districts of Moulvibazar and Habiganj, police said, and similar incidents were reported elsewhere in the past two days.

Police in the coastal district of Khulna on Thursday night arrested two people accused of trying to set fire to a school that serves as a polling station. The next day, another attempt to set fire to a nearby primary school was prevented, said Saidur Rahman, the district’s police chief.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and many other opposition parties have boycotted the elections, saying they are aimed at solidifying Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government.

Hasina, 76, is assured of a fourth consecutive term in Sunday’s vote, which observers have criticized as one-sided.

The BNP, led by Khaleda Zia, began a 48-hour general strike on Saturday, calling on people to boycott the vote, saying the government cannot guarantee its impartiality.

On Saturday morning, a small group of party supporters marched through Dhaka’s Shahbagh neighborhood, calling on people to join the strike. Another demonstration of about 200 left-wing protesters took place in front of the National Press Club to denounce the elections.

“The government is playing with fire again. The government has resorted to its old tactic of holding unilateral elections,” said Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, a senior BNP official.

Deadly train fire

Meanwhile, police arrested seven members of the opposition party, accused of an alleged pre-election fire on a commuter train on Friday, in which four people died.

Among those arrested in the capital early on Saturday was Nabiullah Nabi, a senior BNP official, along with six other party activists.

“Nabi financed and planned the attack,” Dhaka metropolitan police spokesman Faruk Hossain told the AFP news agency by telephone.

Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said the timing of the incident showed an “absolute intention to hamper the festivities and the security of the country’s democratic processes.”

A rescuer shines his torch from a window as he searches for a charred Benapole Express carriage in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on January 5, 2024. [Indranil Mukherjee/AFP]

“This reprehensible incident, undoubtedly orchestrated by people with malicious intent, strikes at the very heart of our democratic values,” he added in a statement.

However, BNP spokesperson AKM Wahiduzzaman told AFP the attacks were pre-planned “acts of sabotage” by the ruling government, aimed at “discrediting the BNP’s non-violent movement”.

He said the government intended to “divert people’s attention from the electoral farce.”

Eight people were seriously injured in the train fire, authorities said.

“All eight, including two children, were burned in their respiratory tract,” said Dr. Samanta Lal Sen of a state-run burn hospital in the capital. “We are watching them closely,” she told reporters.

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