Bangladesh marks victory day amid political strife

December 17, 2006 - 0:0
DHAKA (Reuters) -- Bangladesh celebrated the 35th anniversary of its independence on Saturday amid continuing strife ahead of parliamentary elections due next month, with rival leaders laying wreaths at a war memorial near the capital.

Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan on December 16, 1971 after a nine-month guerrilla war costing millions of lives.

The armed forces heralded the big day, a public holiday in Bangladesh, with a dawn artillery barrage, and people poured into the streets, chanting "victory is for ever, let us keep it safe".

Addressing a children's parade in Dhaka, President Iajuddin Ahmed urged Bangladeshis to join efforts to build the impoverished country into a happy and prosperous nation.

The president was the first to lay a wreath at the national war memorial at Savar, 25 km (16 miles) from the capital, followed by rival former prime ministers Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, witnesses said. Security was tight.

Khaleda's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Hasina's Awami League are currently locked in a bitter struggle to win power in the elections set for January 23.

The run-up to the polls so far has been violent and tense with rival activists clashing almost daily. At least 44 have been killed and hundreds injured since late October.

At least 10 people were injured in fighting overnight when rival party officials gathered to lay wreaths at a war memorial in the southern port city of Chittagong, police said.

Despite the anniversary, Bangladesh stayed focused on Saturday on its present-day challenge of holding a free and fair election, with a Hasina-led multiparty alliance still threatening to "resist" unless crucial reforms are implemented.

Its demands include removal of key Election Commission officials, whom Hasina accuses of bias in favor of Khaleda and the BNP, and pushing back the poll date to allow more time for campaigning.

Remote possibility

Officials said this looked a remote possibility given that the constitution requires new elections to take place within three months of expiry of the previous government's tenure.

Khaleda handed power to President Iajuddin on October 29 at the end of her five-year term as prime minister. He now heads an interim government charged with organizing free, impartial polls.

Hasina has accused Iajuddin too of bias towards Khaleda and urged him to quit as caretaker leader to prove his neutrality.

The BNP attacked Hasina, saying she was trying to destroy democracy and push Bangladesh into a constitutional crisis.

The latest episode in the country's long-running political melodrama came on Thursday when the High Court confirmed a two-year jail sentence on former army ruler Hossain Mohammad Ershad.

Earlier, a lower court had ordered Ershad jailed for squandering state funds during his 1982-1990 rule in a deal to purchase patrol boats from Japan.

Ershad's Jatiya Party, which had planned to join Hasina's alliance ahead of the polls, said the High Court suddenly sprang into action to prevent Ershad from contesting the election.

Hasina said the court ruling was "remote-controlled" by Khaleda's party. BNP secretary-general Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan denied this.

On Friday, Ershad's supporters staged noisy protests across the country. They attacked and damaged vehicles in Dhaka.

Police raided a Jatiya Party office in the capital and detained about 50 party activists on Friday night.

The Jatiya Party vowed to challenge the High Court ruling and police action. It did not elaborate.