Curfew imposed, cell phones silenced as protests spread in Bangladesh

Thursday, August 23, 2007

DHAKA, Bangladesh -- The military-backed government imposed an indefinite curfew in six major cities Wednesday, clearing the streets and temporarily shutting down cell phones in a bid to quell three days of unrest by students demanding an end to emergency rule.

Police with loudspeakers urged residents to stay home as the curfew came into effect at 8 p.m. Security forces patrolled the deserted streets.

"This is a temporary measure. The curfew will be lifted as soon as the situation improves," Bangladesh's interim head of government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, said in a brief televised speech.

The curfew order came after students took their protests from university campuses to the streets of the capital, burning vehicles and battling with security forces. Students also clashed with police in three other cities.

Cell phones stopped working about an hour before the curfew went into effect. An official at the country's largest mobile operator, GrameenPhone, said the government ordered all cell phone service temporarily shut down. The official asked not to be identified for fear of upsetting authorities.

Wednesday saw the first death in three days of mayhem when students attacked a police checkpoint northwest of Dhaka, the United News of Bangladesh agency said.

There were differing accounts of how the unidentified man died -- students charged police fatally beat him, but police said the man was killed by a stone thrown by a protester.

Demonstrations have spread across the grindingly poor South Asian country since Monday with students demanding an end to emergency rule. The emergency was imposed in January when President Iajuddin Ahmed canceled scheduled elections, outlawed demonstrations, curtailed press freedoms and limited other civil liberties.

The interim government now running Bangladesh is doing so with the backing of the military, which ruled the country throughout the 1980s. Officials say elections will be held in late 2008.

The protests began when University of Dhaka students called for the removal of an army post from the campus. The soldiers withdrew a day later after violent protests left 150 people injured, but the students' demands escalated and the protests continued. Hundreds have since been hurt.

On Wednesday, students said they wanted the return of democracy immediately.

"We don't want this emergency rule. It has curtailed our freedom. We want democracy," said Mohammad Rabi, a student leader.

How much support the students have among the general population is unclear. Bangladesh's democracy, restored in 1991, has been best known for endemic corruption and a bitter rivalry between the leaders of the two main political parties, Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wazed.

Violence between supporters of the two women is what prompted the president to call off the vote and impose emergency rule.

But in one indication of spreading support for the students, slum dwellers and street vendors joined the protests Wednesday as students battled police, who used batons and tear gas to try to disperse the crowds.

Away from the clashes, students put up burning barricades on the largely empty streets.

The government first warned in a statement that it would "be compelled to take tough action" if there was no end to the protests.

A short while later, authorities imposed an indefinite curfew in Dhaka and five other major cities.

The move was intended to "protect public life and property," said Law and Information Adviser Mainul Hosein. "We hope the measure will help restore normalcy."

The decision was made at a meeting of leaders of the interim government and military, he said.

As word of the curfew order spread, residents crowded into stores to buy supplies and motorists lined up at gas stations.

"We need to stock some essential items. Who knows how long this trouble will last?" said Raihana Khatoon, a teacher in Dhaka who was buying rice and lentils.

Students were also ordered off the campuses of all universities in Dhaka and the other cities where the curfew was imposed. An official at the University of Dhaka, A.F.M. Haider, said most students had left the dormitories ahead of the curfew.

By 8 p.m., streets that had earlier been jammed with people trying to get home -- cramming into cars or buses or simply walking -- were deserted.

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