Bangladesh towns shut after coal mine protestors killed

Bangladesh towns shut after coal mine protestors killed

Monday, August 28th 2006

Thousands of farmers took to the streets across northern Bangladesh over the fatal shooting of at least five people protesting against an open-pit coal mine.

Hundreds of paramilitary and police stood guard outside coal mining firm Asia Energy in Phulbari where security forces allegedly shot into a crowd of protestors Saturday who tried to storm the offices.

More than 50 people were injured, police said Sunday. At least 10 of the injured are critical and receiving treatment locally, hospital staffers said.

“Thousands have gathered on the streets in the town. The situation is very tense. But so far there is no violence,” local police chief Fazlul Haq said, adding shops and schools were closed.

London-based Asia Energy Plc is developing a coal basin at Phulbari that farmers and local land owners say will destroy their fields and houses.

Local media reports put Saturday’s death toll at between five to seven, but police said they could only confirm five deaths in the protests.

Hundreds of troops were also deployed in the neighbouring town of Dinajpur where protestors went on strike and held marches, northern Bangladesh police chief Naem Ahmed said.

The company plans to invest 1.4 billion dollars in the coalfield, which contains high quality and low-sulphur bituminous coals that will be mainly used for power generation.

Bangladesh’s top foreign investment official criticised the protests and said they would hurt efforts by the impoverished nation of 144 million people to attract foreign investment which reached a record 845.3 million dollars in 2005.

“This will give a negative signal to the foreign investors, which is very unfortunate,” said Mahmudur Rahman, head of the government’s Board of Investment.

A spokesman for Asia Energy Saturday said the company regretted the violence but it rejected the protesters’ claims, saying the “whole area will be restored to fertile and productive land” once mining operations were completed.

A left-leaning National Committee for Protecting Gas, Water, Power, Port and Mineral Resources organised the protest on Saturday at Phulbari, 350 kilometres (217 miles) north of Dhaka.

They called another strike Sunday to protest the killings and to demand immediate withdrawal of Asia Energy’s investment in the country.

“We have today held marches at Phulbari and all the neighbouring district towns. We want immediate cancellation of Asia Energy’s open-cast mine project at Phulbari,” said Khurshid Ali Moti, a leader of the committee.

“We also want a thorough investigation into Saturday’s killings of peaceful marchers,” he said, claiming that police and paramilitaries had since terrorised people in the area to foil the strike.

Bangladesh’s home minister Lutfuzzaman Babar told reporters that he had ordered an investigation into the shootings.

“We will investigate why peolple became so agitated and what circumstances led to the shooting,” Babar said.

Protest organisers said the mine would displace 100,000 people and wipe out some local communities. But the company said plans were in place to compensate those affected.

“What the protection committee is saying is simply not true. There will be resettlement of around 40,000 people and all of them will be fully compensated,” the company’s head of corporate affairs, Brian Mooney, said Saturday.

Copyright © 2006 Agence France Presse. All rights reserved.

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