A devastating arson attack on a packed passenger train in Bangladesh has killed at least 4 people and injured over 50 others just days before the country holds highly divisive general elections.
Packed Train Engulfed in Flames Shortly After Departure
The deadly incident occurred around 5:30 AM Saturday morning aboard the Benapole Express train shortly after it left the capital Dhaka on route to the western Bangladeshi city of Khulna. According to police statements, miscreants stopped the train by pulling the emergency brake and then set multiple coaches on fire.
The train was filled well beyond capacity, with many passengers even riding on the rooftops. This made escape extremely difficult when the flames erupted. Survivors described harrowing scenes of people jumping from the burning coaches to save themselves.
At least 4 charred bodies have been recovered from the wreckage that includes the burnt out shells of 3 compartments. The fire also injured over 50 people, many of whom suffered severe burns and smoke inhalation. They have been admitted to nearby hospitals, with some in critical condition.
Incident Follows Series of Pre-Election Violent Attacks
Local authorities have stated that all evidence points to this being a deliberate, well-planned arson attack. No terror outfit has yet claimed responsibility. However, the incident comes amidst increasing political violence and unrest in Bangladesh leading up to contentious national elections on Sunday January 8th.
Opposition groups have called for widespread strikes and blockades across Bangladesh this weekend. This has led to clashes with ruling party activists and security forces. There are now fears that militant elements on either side of the political divide could be engaging in extreme measures to destabilize their rivals.
Just days ago, crude bomb explosions had rocked districts across Bangladesh injuring dozens. A local Awami League office was also set on fire earlier this week. This train attack thus fits an emerging pattern of violence as tensions reach fever pitch.
Investigations Point to Politically Motivated Mass Murder
Bangladeshi authorities have launched an intensive investigation into the horrific train attack. Security camera footage shows some men entering the train’s driver cabin and then fleeing just before the emergency brakes were pulled to stop the train.
The Railway’s Additional Director General has confirmed that they “suspect that this heinous attack was carried out with a political motive”. As such, suspicions have fallen on opposition party activists who have attacked trains and transport infrastructure in the past to enforce strikes.
An investigating police officer also told reporters that they “will not spare the culprits, whoever they are,” adding grimly that “this was a well-planned mass murder”. Special teams are combing the area for clues and have detained 9 suspects for questioning thus far.
Election Weekend Strike to Proceed Despite Tragedy
The deadly arson attack has shocked Bangladesh, but has failed to deter the Opposition’s calls for a nationwide strike this weekend. A top leader of the National Unity Front (NUF) alliance reiterated that their ‘peaceful’ blockade campaign will continue as planned from Saturday morning.
NUF spokespersons also seemed to justify the move by citing a long history of “vote fraud and suppression” by the incumbent Hasina government. They accused the authorities of showing little interest in investigating over 100 opposition activists murdered in recent months.
For her part, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed ‘deep shock’ over the train attack deaths and injuries. She has directed officials to provide the best medical care for survivors, while also vowing to bring those behind this cruelty to justice.
With both sides refusing to stand down, and the elections just around the corner, there are worries of increasedbloodshed in the coming days.
Intensified Security Deployment Across Volatile Districts
In anticipation of further violence, Bangladesh’s Inspector General of Police held an emergency meeting to review security preparations this weekend. More police and paramilitary battalions will now be deployed across volatile districts to guard against sabotage attempts.
Intelligence agencies warn that extremist elements could attack polling stations to scare voters from turning up on election day. There is also the risk of clashes between rival political camps.
To minimize risks, the Election Commission has imposed restrictions on political rallies and marches on the eve of voting day. However, the deadly train attack underscores fears that well-entrenched partisan networks could still carry out further attacks before polling day.
|Type of Incident
|Crude bomb blasts
|At least 12
|Arson attack on party office
|Sabotage & fire on train
|Dhaka to Khulna route
|At least 4
Table showing major incidents of political violence across Bangladesh in week preceding general elections
The table above summarizes some of the recent incidents related to the escalating pre-poll violence in Bangladesh over the past week. Crude bomb explosions and arson attacks have led to deaths and dozens injured even as tensions rise heading into the weekend election.
Free & Fair Voting Hangs in Balance
Bangladesh is no stranger to election season unrest, but the scale of recent violence has still taken aback many locals. There are worries that the arson attack deaths could trigger retributory attacks from political workers as emotions run high.
Human rights groups have also raised concerns about opposition voters being “allowed to cast their ballots without intimidation” – something that now looks increasingly uncertain amidst the deteriorating law and order situation.
As Bangladesh veers into uncharted waters, the possibility of province-wide violence hangs like a sword over the election outcome. The country anxiously awaits voting day to see whether cooler heads will yet prevail to enable free and fair elections.
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