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Violent clashes as Bangladesh's Hasina faces down opposition strike

Bangladesh's opposition parties have begun a 60-hour nationwide strike, demanding that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina defer to a caretaker government ahead of elections in January. Unrest had claimed at least five lives.

An opposition strike turned violent on Sunday with as many as five deaths. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party went ahead with the strike after last-minute talks between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the opposition's leader Khaleda Zia.

The shutdown is to continue until Tuesday night, local time.

On Saturday evening, during a rare phone call, Prime Minister Hasina (pictured right) invited her archrival, Zia (left), to dinner on Monday to discuss the issue. Zia refused, saying she would reconsider the invitation after the strike.

Zia and her BNP want a pre-election procedure restored. For 15 years, technocrats formed supposedly "neutral" caretaker administrations three months before elections.

It was used from 1996 until 2011, when Bangladesh's High Court declared the practice "illegal." Hasina's coalition government, which has a three-quarters majority in parliament, then scrapped it, saying the previous practice was unconstitutional.

Unrest in Dhaka

As the strike began Sunday, traffic and business was thin in the capital, Dhaka. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets during small-scale protests.

In the western town of Nagarkanda, police said they opened fire in "self-defense," killing one person, when 3,000 opposition BNP supporters disrupted a rural market.

In another western town, Jessore, police said opposition activists had killed a backer of Hasina's Awami League party.

Bangladesh has a long history of political violence, with Hasina and Zia alternately ruling the country since 1991.

Since January, at least 150 people have been killed after a court handed down controversial death sentences to Islamist leaders allied to ex-premier Zia.

ipj/mz (AP, AFP, dpa)

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