At least 34 people have died in Bangladesh and scores have been injured, most of them in firebomb attacks, amid rising political unrest fuelled by a stand-off between prime minister Sheikh Hasina and the main opposition leader.
Begum Khaleda Zia, whose opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotted the election on January 5 last year, has demanded that Hasina and her government step down for a new vote under a caretaker administration.
Hasina has refused, instead tightening her grip by arresting key opposition leaders and clamping down on critical media as anti-government protests spread.
The violence has worsened sharply since January 5, the first anniversary of the vote.
Last Sunday (25), Bangladesh police formally charged Zia with instigating a petrol bomb attack on a passenger bus, a senior police official said.
The authorities accuse the BNP leader of ordering the attack last Friday (23) as part of the party’s campaign to try and force a general election.
“She was charged for the first time with instigating such an attack on a passenger bus during the ongoing blockade programme,” said Habibur Rahman, superintendent of police in Dhaka.
One senior leader of the BNP, Rizvi Ahmed, denied the allegations against Khaleda, who is not in custody but still working in her office.
Last Saturday (24), in an apparent snub, Zia left Hasina waiting on her doorstep after the prime minister had come to offer her condolences following the sudden death of Zia’s youngest son.
Live footage aired by local TV stations showed Hasina’s motorcade standing in front of Zia’s office in Dhaka’s upmarket Gulshan district.
Zia’s son Arafat Rahman Koko, 44, died of a heart attack in Malaysia last Saturday, devastating the two times former prime minister.
Her aide said Zia was asleep at her office when Hasina came to visit.
“We’ve requested the prime minister to come at another time as she was asleep,” he added.
Hasina’s aides reacted sharply. “She came as a prime mister, as a leader and as a mother to console a mother. She stood there for five minutes but she was not allowed to enter,” Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, a spokesman of Hasina, said.
“It’s against any political norms and it’s inhumane,” he added.
Opposition officials have said the death of Zia’s son will not change her resolve to maintain a nationwide transport blockade called earlier this month in a bid to force an early election.
The renewed political turmoil could cause a delay in shipments by the country’s $24-billion (£16bn) garment industry, already under pressure after a string of fatal accidents.
Police said at least 25 people have died in arson attacks, including two last Friday. Nine of the 29 passengers who suffered burns in the incident are in a critical condition.
Last Thursday (22), authorities banned motorcyclists from carrying extra passengers in a bid to halt a spate of drive-by firebombing attacks by protesters, officials said.
The move comes after Bangladesh shut down smartphone messaging and voice services Viber and Tango at the weekend in an attempt to quell the protests.
More than 7,000 opposition activists have been detained since the anniversary, industry minister Amir Hossain Amu, the head of a government law and order panel, has said.
Hasina and Khaleda have alternated as prime minister for most of the past two decades in a fierce rivalry marked by periods of widespread political violence.
The United States, the European Union and Britain have voiced concern and urged all Bangladeshi parties to engage in dialogue.