Bangladesh hit by first strike since elections

Security forces in Bangladesh arrested more than 200 people Sunday as the first nationwide general strike since elections in 2008 was marred by violence, police said.
In the capital Dhaka, security forces fired tear gas and used batons to disperse hundreds of opposition activists as they tried to hold marches along major roads, police said.
An opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) lawmaker was hurt when supporters and opponents of the strike clashed at Dhaka University, police spokesman Walid Hossain said, adding the man was rushed to hospital and later arrested.
At least 12,000 policemen and the elite Rapid Action Battalion were deployed in Dhaka to try to avert violence as the shutdown brought much of the capital of 13 million people and the country to a standstill.
Police said the strike had halted transport throughout the country and disrupted business operations. In Dhaka, most private offices, shops, schools and colleges were closed.
The BNP had called the strike to protest against what it says is the Awami League government’s failure to provide basic services such as power, water and gas and against “arbitrary” arrests and harassment of opposition supporters.
The Awami League swept to power in January 2009 after a landslide election victory on December 29, 2008. The BNP, which ruled the country twice after democracy was restored in 1990, was reduced to a small opposition.
Police used batons to disperse opposition activists, footage shown by private television channel Bangla Vision showed. The channel also reported that several people had been injured.
At least 96 people, including two former BNP ministers, were arrested during the strike and 120 activists were taken into custody hours before it began.
“We arrested former public works minister Mirza Abbas this morning on charges of torching vehicles,” said the police chief of Dhaka’s main commercial district, Toffazzal Hossain.
Opposition activists hurled small bombs and pieces of brick at police but there were no casualties, he told AFP.
Thousands of BNP activists demonstrated in Dhaka in small groups. Police cordoned off the party’s main office and banned marches in roads linking government offices and ministers’ homes to the airport.
Several smaller parties, including the main Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, supported the strike.
The southeastern city of Chittagong, the country’s main port and home to five million people, was cut off by lack of transport and at least 10 people were arrested for smashing the windows of a bus, police and officials said.
Big jute fibre mills and shops were closed in the southern city of Khulna but there was no trouble, police inspector Jamal Uddin said.
Earlier in the decade, repeated strikes, blockades and protests disrupted business life in Bangladesh, costing the impoverished country millions of dollars as the two parties battled for control.
But the strikes came to a halt in 2007 when the country came under emergency rule and the army-backed government sought to bring political stability.

Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2010