Protests as Bangladesh arrests managers over blaze

Bangladesh police fired rubber bullets to disperse thousands of workers who protested for a third day Wednesday over the nation's worst factory blaze which prompted the arrest of three plant managers.

At least 5,000 workers left their factories and joined the protests, pelting stones and streaming through the main streets of Ashulia industrial area, just outside Dhaka and home to 500 manufacturing outlets, police said.

"They were demanding justice for the fire victims and arrest of the (plant) owner," police official Faruq Ahmed told AFP, referring to a weekend blaze at a local garment factory that left 110 people dead and more than 100 injured.

Police have arrested three managers of Tazreen Fashion factory hit by the fire, following charges that they stopped workers from leaving the burning plant when the fire alarm sounded, insisting that it was just a routine drill.

Industrial police deputy director Moktar Hossain said police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and jets of hot water from a water cannon to break up the crowd. "We were forced to react as they started pelting officers with stones."

The online edition of the mass-circulated Daily Star said workers also vandalised factories and torched motorcycles, injuring at least 20 people.

More than 100 factories at Ashulia, where the Tazreen plant is located, declared an impromptu holiday for the day, fearing the protests could grow into large-scale industrial unrest.

Police arrested an administrative officer, the store in-charge and a security supervisor of the factory, following charges that they told panicked workers they had nothing to worry about when the fire started.

"All three are mid-level managers of Tazreen. Survivors told us they did not allow the workers to escape the fire, saying it was a routine fire drill," Dhaka police chief Habibur Rahman told AFP.

"There are also allegations that they even padlocked doors," he said.

The burning factory supplied clothes to a variety of international brands including US retail giant Walmart.

Two government inquiries have already been set up to establish the cause of the worst factory fire to hit Bangladesh's garment industry, which employs three million and is the mainstay of the economy.

The shocked nation observed a day of national mourning Tuesday. Green and red Bangladeshi flags flew at half-mast alongside black flags atop government offices and the nation's 4,500 garment factories.

Rahman said police also questioned Tazreen's owner, Delwar Hossain, about alleged building rules violations after inspectors found the nine-storey factory only had permission for three floors.

Around 700 garment workers have been killed in dozens of fires since 2006, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, an Amsterdam-based textile rights group. But none of the owners has been prosecuted over previous blazes.

Campaigners allege Western firms which make clothes in Bangladesh hide behind inadequate safety audits to help drive down costs.

After European chain C&A and Hong Kong-based Li & Fung confirmed they had orders at Tazreen, Walmart also acknowledged some of its products were made there and said it had terminated ties with the supplier.

Meanwhile, about 50 employees were hurt in a stampede after smoke from an air cooler at a five-storey factory triggered panic among workers in Bangladesh's port city of Chittagong, the general manager of the industrial park said.

"Of the injured, 25 people were rushed to Chittagong Medical College Hospital. Another 20 workers were given first aid," said Abdur Rashid of the Chittagong Export Processing Zone, where the factory is based.

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