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Bangladesh opposition calls mass march to derail polls

DHAKA (AFP) – Bangladesh opposition leader Khaleda Zia on Tuesday called on citizens to stage a mass march to the capital Dhaka in an escalation of protests aimed at derailing controversial January elections.

Zia s call stokes tensions in the impoverished country, with over 100 people already killed in clashes since late October when the opposition launched the protests to force Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to resign and make way for the polls to be held under a neutral caretaker government.

“I urge all citizens to march to Dhaka on December 29. This march is to say  no  to these farcical elections and to say  yes  to democracy,” Zia, a two-time former prime minister, said in a speech.

“Wherever you are, carry a red and green national flag and march to Dhaka.  We call this a march for democracy,” she said in the capital.

She asked the citizens to form “protest committees” in every village to foil the polls.”

The centre-left government insisted it would go ahead with the January 5 polls despite a boycott by opposition parties and major foreign nations announcing they won t send any election observers.

On Monday, the United States joined the European Union and the Commonwealth countries in refusing to send observers to monitor polls, denting the credibility of the elections.

Both the US and EU have raised questions about the polls as the winners of more than half of the seats in the 300-seat parliament have already been declared as they faced no opponents.

It means technically that Hasina s Awami League government could form a government even before ballots are cast as the party and its allies have won 154 seats.

Zia s main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its 17 allies including the country s largest Islamist outfit, Jamaat-e-Islami party, called the uncontested victories “the worst scandal in the country s election history”.

They said they are boycotting the polls because they fear the elections will be rigged by Hasina. The opposition wants Hasina to quit and make way for a neutral caretaker government to hold the polls in line with the four previous elections.

Hasina has rejected the opposition demand, saying the caretaker government system is unconstitutional.

Last week, she ruled out changes to the election schedule, mocking Zia, her bitter rival for nearly three decades, that she had missed the election train.

Zia s call for a mass march comes as the country has been reeling from the deadliest political violence since its independence from Pakistan in 1971.

At least 265 people have died since January in violence that has pitted opposition activists against police and ruling party supporters. At least 115 of them have been killed in the past two months when Zia stepped up her campaign to topple Hasina.

Zia said she was still ready “to continue talks” with Hasina to resolve the crisis after three rounds of UN-brokered talks between the two major parties yielded no result.

But Zia accused the government of not being sincere, charging that “it wants to cling to power at any cost”.

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