Bangladesh paralysed as coal protest strike grips nation

Bangladesh paralysed as coal protest strike grips nation

Thursday, August 31st 2006

A strike paralysed Bangladesh as a police officer was killed amid new violent protests over the shooting deaths of five demonstrators against a British firm’s plan to construct a coal mine.

Shops, schools and businesses in all major towns and cities were closed for the strike called by the main opposition to protest the Asia Energy Plc project north of the capital.

In Dhaka, activists hurled rocks and clashed with security forces, after 10,000 police and paramilitary officers fanned out across the city to try to contain the situation. One officer injured in the clashes later died in hospital.

“He had been hit on his forehead by a rock,” said deputy city police commissioner Kohinoor Mia.

More than 3,000 protestors took to the streets in the northern town of Phulbari where Asia Energy plans to invest 1.4 billion dollars to build the open-pit mine.

Plans to construct the mine, some 350 kilometres (217 miles) north of Dhaka, have stirred huge protests by farmers and locals who say it will damage the environment and displace over 100,000 people.

Protests intensified on Saturday after at least five people were killed when paramilitary forces allegedly fired into a crowd of thousands seeking to storm the offices of Asia Energy in Phulbari.

Awami League, a 14-party opposition alliance that called the strike, accused security forces of being “trigger happy”.

Asia Energy says 40,000 people will be displaced over three decades and says those affected would get compensation and help to resume their livelihoods elsewhere.

Government officials have said minor left-wing parties may have incited more than five days of unrest for political gain.

On Monday, activists went on the rampage in Phulbari torching and ransacking buildings linked to the London-based firm and blocking roads and train lines.

“The situation is calm but tense. Some road and rail links are still cut because of log barricades put up by the protestors,” said Phulbari police additional superintendent Ruhul Amin.

He said a meeting between the mine protestors and two junior ministers originally scheduled for Tuesday would be held later Wednesday.

In Bangladesh’s second city of Chittagong, police said they deployed 4,000 officers in case of protests. No violence was reported but deliveries at the main port were suspended.

Asia Energy said Wednesday it would continue to develop the mine although it had “temporarily suspended its field operations in and around Phulbari.”

“We are continuing to work positively with the government of Bangladesh to make this project a success,” company chief executive Steve Bywater said in a statement posted on its website.

“The government has assured us it remains committed to the project.”

Asia Energy was earlier given a licence to explore the site and is awaiting government approval to develop it. The government has said the decision has been delayed until it finalises its coal policy.

At full production, the Phulbari mine would produce 15 million tonnes of high quality coal a year.

On Tuesday, foreign investment promotion chief Mahmudur Rahman, who is also junior minister for energy and mineral resources, said there was “no way we will cancel the agreement”.

“We need coal to meet our growing energy requirements because gas alone cannot meet them,” he said.

More than 50 people were also injured, 10 critically, in the Saturday shooting by the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles which was ordered by a magistrate after protestors allegedly tried to storm the Asia Energy office.

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