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Protests against Bangladesh election turn violent

Lawyers loyal to Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Bangladesh Jamaat-E-Islami shout slogans as policemen use water cannons during a pro
Lawyers loyal to Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Bangladesh Jamaat-E-Islami shout slogans as policemen use water cannons during a pro

By Ruma Paul

DHAKA (Reuters) - Violent clashes erupted in Bangladesh on Sunday as opposition supporters took to the streets to protest against a January 5 general election which they are boycotting.

The opposition says it will not take part in the vote unless an interim government oversees it and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina steps down.

The boycott means more than half of 300 parliament seats will go uncontested, undermining the legitimacy of the election and making it highly unlikely it will do anything to restore stability in one of the world's poorest countries.

The leader of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Begum Khaleda Zia, called for a march on the capital, Dhaka, in defiance of a police ban to protest against what she calls the "farcical" election.

One person was killed as police opened fire to disperse protesters throwing stones and crude bombs in central Dhaka and a railway guard was killed in a blast at a city station, police said.

"The government is undemocratic and illegal. It should step down immediately," former premier Khaleda told reporters in front of her home after being barred from attending the march. Dozens of police were deployed late on Saturday to stop her from leaving her house.

Khaleda said the "march for democracy" would go on Monday.

Pro-BNP lawyers also clashed with police and ruling party supporters at the Supreme Court.

Opposition party officials say hundreds of their supporters have been detained across the country over recent days and Dhaka is virtually cut off as authorities suspended bus, rail and ferry services into the city.

Violence has gripped the country as Hasina and her ruling Awami League press ahead with vote.

More than 200 people have been killed in political violence this year, half of them since November 25 when the Election Commission announced the date for the vote.

Rolling strikes staged by the opposition and blockades of roads, rail lines and waterways are also hurting the $22 billion garment export industry, which has already been under a cloud because of a string of fatal incidents.

Hasina and Khaleda, both related to former national leaders, have dominated politics in Bangladesh for more than two decades. The antagonism between them has frustrated attempts at reconciliation.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

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