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10 killed in Bangladesh election day violence

10 killed in Bangladesh election day violence

At least 10 people were killed in election-day clashes in Bangladesh on Sunday, after a bloody campaign overshadowed by a crackdown on the opposition by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who is expected to win a historic but controversial fourth term.

Three men were shot by police while six others died in clashes between activists from the ruling Awami League Party and opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), police said.

An auxiliary police member was killed after being attacked by opposition activists armed with guns and sticks, according to officials.

Voting is being held under tight security until 4pm Bangladesh time and polls have predicted a record fourth term for Hasina.

Bangladesh's leader has been lauded for boosting economic growth in the poor Asian nation during an unbroken decade in power and for welcoming Rohingya refugees fleeing a military crackdown in neighbouring Myanmar.

But critics accuse her of authoritarianism and crippling the opposition — including arch-rival Khaleda Zia who is serving 17 years in prison on graft charges — to cling on to power.

The election campaign was marred by violence between supporters of Hasina's Awami League and Zia's BNP.

Some 600,000 security personnel were deployed across the South Asian country, including at 40,000 polling stations.

Authorities ordered mobile operators to shut down 3G and 4G services until midnight on Sunday "to prevent the spread of rumours" that could trigger unrest.

The election-day deaths brought to 14 the official police toll for election violence since the ballot was announced on November 8.

Police said they acted "in self-defence" in the southern town of Bashkhali, when they opened fire on opposition supporters who attempted to storm a polling booth, killing one.

In a separate incident another man was shot by police after he tried to steal a ballot box.

Opinion polls show Hasina, who has presided over six percent GDP expansion every year since she won a landslide in 2008, heading for a comfortable victory that would extend her reign as the country's longest-serving leader.

She needs 151 seats in the first-past-the-post system to control the 300-seat parliament but experts say a victory would be sullied by accusations that she hamstrung her opponents' campaign and scared people into voting for her.

The opposition says more than 15,000 of its activists have been detained during the weeks-long campaign, crushing its ability to mobilise grassroots support.

"We are getting disturbing reports outside Dhaka that overnight votes have been cast illegally," said Kamal Hossain, the 82-year-old architect of Bangladesh's constitution who is helming the opposition coalition.

Presiding officers at polling stations across Dhaka reported a low turnout in morning voting.

Human Rights Watch and other international groups have decried the crackdown, saying it has created a climate of fear which could prevent opposition supporters from casting ballots.

The United States has raised concerns about the credibility of the Muslim-majority country's election while the United Nations called for greater efforts to make the vote fair.

Seventeen opposition candidates have been arrested over what they claim are trumped-up charges while another 17 were disqualified from running by courts, which Hasina's opponents say are government controlled.

"This is not (a) free and fair election. It is more a controlled selection," said a Western diplomat who asked not to be named.

A leading Bangladeshi news channel has been taken off the air, officials said on Sunday. The private Jamuna TV said the action was taken late on Saturday.

"Cable operators took Jamuna TV off air without giving us any explanation," Fahim Ahmed, the station's chief news editor, told AFP.

"We are still transmitting. But no one in Bangladesh can see our channel due to the blackout," he said. The channel's output can still be seen online.

The broadcaster, which is owned by Jamuna Group — one of Bangladesh's biggest conglomerates, which also runs a newspaper — is known for its independent coverage.

Salma Islam, a member of the family that owns the group, stood in Sunday's election as an independent candidate against an influential ruling party businessman.

A top cable operator in Dhaka said Jamuna broadcasts stopped for technical rather than political reasons.

"We are not getting their signal," said S.M Ali Chanchal, owner of cable operator UCS. Jamuna rejected the explanation and insisted their signals were being broadcast as normal.

During Sunday's election two photojournalists from the Manob Kantho local daily were injured when they were attacked by unknown assailants in Dhaka.

"Some 20-30 men suddenly assaulted and started beating us. They broke our cameras as well," photographer Jubair Rakesh told AFP.

Journalists, including two from AFP, were also prevented from taking images at some polling centres by pro-government activists.

There have been mounting accusations that Hasina's government has been stifling dissent and curbing freedom of the press ahead of the vote.

Internationally renowned photographer Shahidul Alam was detained for nearly four months after he was accused of making false and provocative statements against Hasina on Facebook.

Two pro-opposition editors have been detained for months over what they say are trumped-up charges while the editors of two influential dailies were accused of sedition and scores of other defamation cases.

In recent months Hasina's government has also strengthened a digital security law, which rights groups and journalists have said makes investigative journalism almost impossible.

The Bangladeshi leadership has alternated between Hasina and Zia, allies-turned-foes, over the last three decades.

Hasina rejects accusations of creeping authoritarianism but analysts say she mounted the clampdown over fears that young voters were set to hand a victory to the BNP.

Her government was criticised this year for its heavy handling of weeks of massive student protests over the abolition of job quotas and poor safety standards on Bangladesh's dangerous roads.

Hasina, the daughter of Bangladesh's first president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was gifted victory in the 2014 election when the BNP boycotted the vote claiming it wasn't free or fair.

Since then, rights groups have accused her administration of stifling freedom of speech through the toughening of a draconian anti-press law and the enforced disappearance of government dissenters.

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