Police say unidentified arsonists have set fire to at least five primary schools, including four polling stations.

Polling booths were set on fire in Bangladesh on the eve of Sunday’s general elections, hours after four people were killed in a suspected arson attack on a commuter train.

Police on Saturday said unidentified arsonists set fire to at least five primary schools, including four polling stations.

They were investigating fires in Gazipur, on the outskirts of the capital, Dhaka, suspected to have been set in the middle of the night by those aiming to disrupt the elections, which the main opposition party has pledged to boycott.

“We have intensified patrolling and remain on high alert,” said Gazipur police chief Kazi Shafiqul Alam.

The election commission has asked authorities to increase security around polling stations.

Arsonists also attacked polling booths in the northeastern districts of Moulvibazar and Habiganj, police said, with similar incidents reported elsewhere in the past two days.

Police in the coastal district of Khulna arrested two people on Thursday night accused of trying to set fire to a school, which serve as voting stations. The following day, another bid to set fire to a primary school nearby was averted, said Saidur Rahman, police chief of the district.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and numerous other opposition parties, have boycotted the elections, saying they are intended to solidify the rule of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Hasina, 76, is assured of a fourth consecutive term in Sunday’s vote, which observers have criticised as one-sided.

The Khaleda Zia-led BNP on Saturday started a 48-hour general strike, calling on people to boycott the vote, saying the government can’t guarantee its fairness.

On Saturday morning, a small group of party supporters marched across Dhaka’s Shahbagh neighbourhood, calling on people to join the strike. Another rally by about 200 left-wing protesters took place outside the National Press Club to denounce the election.

“The government is again playing with fire. The government has resorted to its old tactics of holding a one-sided election,” said Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, a senior BNP official.

Deadly train fire

Meanwhile, police apprehended seven members of the opposition party, accused of an alleged pre-election arson attack on a commuter train on Friday, in which four people were killed.

Among those arrested in the capital early on Saturday was Nabiullah Nabi, a senior BNP official, along with six other party activists.

“Nabi funded and masterminded the attack,” Dhaka Metropolitan Police spokesperson Faruk Hossain told the AFP news agency by phone.

Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said the timing of the incident showed an “absolute intention to hinder the festivity, safety and security of the democratic processes of the country”.

A Bangladeshi rescuer shines his torch out from a window as he searches a burnt out carriage of the Benapole Express in Dhaka on January 5, 2024
A rescuer shines his torch from a window as he searches a charred carriage of the Benapole Express in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on January 5, 2024 [Indranil Mukherjee/AFP]

“This reprehensible incident, undoubtedly orchestrated by those with malicious intent, strikes at the very heart of our democratic values,” he added in a statement.

However, BNP spokesperson AKM Wahiduzzaman told AFP the attacks were pre-planned “acts of sabotage” by the ruling government, aimed at “discrediting the non-violent movement of the BNP”.

He said the government was aiming to “divert people’s attention away from the sham election”.

Eight people were critically injured in the train fire, officials said.

“All eight, including two children, have burnt their respiratory tracts,” said Dr Samanta Lal Sen of a state-run specialist burns hospital in the capital. “We are closely monitoring them,” he told reporters.

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