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Bangladesh poll chief goes but blockade remains

Written by: Staff
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DHAKA, Nov 23 (Reuters) A countrywide transport blockade called to force out controversial Bangladesh election officials went into a fourth day today despite confirmation that the chief election Commissioner was temporarily stepping aside.

''We cannot call off the blockade immediately,'' Abdul Jalil, general secretary of the Awami League, said late yesterday. ''We will take a decision after discussing the matter with our allies and weighing the pros and cons.'' President Iajuddin Ahmed confirmed chief commissioner M A Aziz's decision to take leave in a broadcast to the nation yesterday night.

''He has agreed to go on three months' leave in the greater interest of the nation,'' Mr Iajuddin said.

Commission officials said one of Aziz's three deputies, Mahfuzur Rahman, had taken over as acting election chief.

''This is a big challenge but I hope to overcome it with everyone's help and cooperation,'' Mr Rahman told reporters today.

He said he would try to ensure the coming election was free and fair, and that preparations were afoot to hold the polls within the stipulated time.

The president, who heads an interim government taking the nation through to January general elections, said he hoped Aziz's departure would end weeks of protests by a 14-party alliance led by Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League.

The alliance accuses Aziz of bias in favour of former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Mr Jalil said the ''president's speech was mysterious and fell short of our expectations''. The Awami-led alliance had also sought the immediate removal of Aziz's three deputies.

Jalil said President Iajuddin's announcement of a plan to appoint two new election commissioners could further complicate matters.

Thousands of alliance activists remained on the streets of the capital early today, halting traffic.

Jalil said the protesters would celebrate their ''limited victory'' today while their leaders decided whether the crippling blockade should continue.

Mr Iajuddin said he had made drastic changes in the police and civil administrations to ensure the January elections were free and impartial.

''Also, I have ordered the law-enforcement agencies to deal sternly with anyone trying to create lawlessness,'' he added.

Hasina's alliance called an indefinite transport stoppage from Monday to press its campaign to have Aziz removed.

The blockade has paralysed the impoverished country of 140 million, closing everything from schools to ports.

Four people were killed and hundreds injured in clashes between rival activists in the past three days.

REUTERS AKJ BS1351

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