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Emergency declared in Bangladesh

Election is canceled amid violence. The interim leader of the government steps down.

January 12, 2007|Nurul Alam and Laura King | Special to The Times

CHITTAGONG, BANGLADESH — After weeks of mounting political violence, Bangladesh's president declared a nationwide state of emergency Thursday and indefinitely postponed elections that had been scheduled to take place in less than two weeks.

President Iajuddin Ahmed also said he would step down as interim head of a caretaker administration in the impoverished South Asian nation but would retain the largely ceremonial post of president.

No new date was set for nationwide balloting that had been scheduled for Jan. 22.

"It is not possible to hold the elections on schedule," Ahmed said in a nationally televised speech. He said the delay was meant to ensure that a vote, when held, would be "free, fair and credible."

The emergency declaration gives wide-ranging powers to the police and military, suspending many fundamental rights.

A nighttime curfew was declared in the capital, Dhaka, and dozens of other cities nationwide. Private broadcasting outlets were ordered to suspend independent newscasts and relay only information provided by state-run television.

Ahmed, whose caretaker administration was to have overseen the elections, said he would temporarily hand over responsibility to an aide, Fazlul Haque.

The political crisis intensified concerns about the viability of democracy in Bangladesh. Since attaining independence from Pakistan in 1971, the country has been beset by military takeovers. Even after the restoration of civilian rule, Bangladesh's political landscape has been characterized by violence and intimidation.

The country recently has been hit by a wave of widespread and highly disruptive strikes organized by an opposition coalition that was boycotting the election. Protesters demanded that Ahmed relinquish control of the caretaker government and that a new voter list be drawn up.

International observers also had expressed growing doubts that the balloting would be fair. The United Nations announced earlier Thursday that it was suspending technical assistance for the election, and the European Union and the United States had each scrapped or scaled back plans to send observers to monitor the vote.

The unrest has pitted two former prime ministers, both women, against each other. Sheik Hasina Wajed, who leads a coalition that has called for a boycott of the voting, alleged that her opponent, Khaleda Zia, gained an unfair advantage through massive voter-registration fraud. Zia denies the accusation.

king@latimes.com

Special correspondent Alam reported from Chittagong and Times staff writer King from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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