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Bangladesh holds referendum on military rule

By
ALAMGIR MOHIUDDIN

DHAKA, Bangladesh -- Bangladeshi voters cast ballots Thursday in a referendum on President Hussain Muhammad Ershad's military rule and the government reported a 70 percent turnout despite a boycott call by the opposition.

Police sources said 18 people were injured in clashes with police and other referendum-related incidents across the country. On the eve of the balloting, a bomb blast killed a guard at a polling station in Dhaka and three people were arrested for throwing firecrackers at police.

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The Election Commission reported a 70 percent turnout at the 23,000 polling stations nationwide.

Reporters who visited stations in the capital, however, said they saw only a few voters. At one point early Thursday, only 10 people in two hours were seen casting ballots at one polling station in Dhaka.

One question in the referendum asked voters if they wanted continued rule by Ershad and a further delay in elections under a suspended constitution.

Ershad rose to power in a 1982 bloodless coup, imposed martial law and declared himself president in 1983. He scheduled Thursday's referendum after repeatedly calling and canceling parliamentary elections.

Opposition parties had called for a boycott of the nine-hour balloting.

Early returns from 167 polling stations near the capital showed Ershad had won 90 percent of the votes, with 105,800 votes cast in favor of his presidency and policies and 9,203 against him, the commission said.

Chief Election Commissioner Justice A.T.M. Masud said final results would be announced late Friday.

Lt. Gen. Ershad, who cast his ballot with his wife, Begum Rawshan, under tight security, told reporters he would be happy with a 60 percent turnout.

The opposition had demanded Ershad lift martial law and turn the country over to a neutral caretaker government before holding the elections to ensure fairness. The president refused, saying that would bring on chaos.

Some officials believe Ershad will use the referendum as a basis to hold parliamentary elections over the opposition's criticism.

The referendum came amid a renewed crackdown on the opposition.

In the first week of March, Ershad reimposed full martial law, resurrected martial law courts and offices, shut down the nation's six universities and put two key dissident leaders under house arrest. He also clamped censorship back on and banned political agitation.

After casting his ballot Thursday, Ershad told reporters only an elected parliament could decide whether to lift martial law.

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