Fresh violence erupted across Bangladesh on Monday, leaving at least four people dead as rival party activists clashed on the second day of a strike amid a mounting political crisis.
Police said street battles broke out throughout Bangladesh between thousands of supporters of the ruling party and the opposition, which is demanding the prime minister quit and make way for elections under a caretaker government.
A bomb blast in the western Harina Kundu town killed a local opposition official, while elsewhere two activists were killed in separate clashes and a truck driver died after being pelted with bricks, police said.
"Apparently the bomb was hurled, targeting him (the local official). He died on his way to the hospital," local police chief Mohibul Islam told AFP.
At least 16 people in total have now died in the unrest that has escalated since Friday, when the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its Islamist allies staged mass rallies over arrangements for the elections.
Television footage on Monday showed protesters barricading highways, exploding crude bombs and attacking political party offices in dozens of towns, with police responding in some cases with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Last-minute talks on Saturday between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her bitter rival, BNP leader Khaleda Zia, failed to halt the three-day strike and defuse the crisis over the polls set for January 2014.
Hasina's appeal to call off the strike occurred during a 40-minute phone conversation -- believed to be the first time in at least a decade that the two "battling begums" have spoken.
"Begum" is an honorific for a Muslim woman of rank.
Zia, who has twice served as premier, has since Friday branded the government "illegal", citing a legal provision that requires a neutral government to be set up three months before elections.
Hasina said such an arrangement is unconstitutional, proposing instead an all-party interim government led by her to oversee the January polls. But the BNP rejected the proposal, claiming it would allow Hasina to rig results.
Bangladesh has been ruled alternately by Hasina and Zia since 1991, although a military-backed government headed the country between 2007 and 2008.
Thousands of police on the streets
Schools, shops and other businesses remained closed on Monday in towns and cities for the strike, which started on Sunday, while thousands of extra police and paramilitary officers have been deployed on the streets, police said.
In the western district of Joypurhat, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas during clashes between some 3,000 activists from the BNP and the ruling Awami League, a police official told AFP.
Police said BNP activists hacked a ruling party supporter to death with machetes in a northern town, while the truck driver died after he was hit by bricks from protesters in the southeastern coastal town of Satkania.
A BNP supporter was also killed during clashes with ruling party supporters in the central district of Chandpur, local police chief Amir Jafar told AFP.
BNP deputy chief Fakhrul Islam Alamgir accused police of opening fire on the party's supporters during Monday's protests, inflaming tensions. He also said the opposition was ready for "talks and compromise" on the issue of who would oversee the upcoming elections.
Private station Independent TV said at least 200 people were injured in clashes with police on Monday, bringing the number of injured in two days of strike to over 500.
The last time the two main parties fought street battles was in late 2006, when dozens were killed, causing the country to shut down for weeks before the army stepped in to cancel elections and set up a military-backed caretaker government.
While the nation has a long history of political violence, this year has been the deadliest since Bangladesh gained independence in 1971.
At least 150 people have been killed since January after a controversial court began handing down death sentences on Islamist leaders allied to ex-premier Zia.