DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Bangladeshi authorities have arrested three senior leaders of the main opposition party amid increasing tensions ahead of next year's elections, an official said Saturday.
Police detectives arrested Moudud Ahmed, M.K. Anwar and Rafiqul Islam Mia late Friday, hours after an alliance led by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party announced its latest nationwide strike. The three-day strike is due to start Sunday morning to pressure the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to quit and appoint a caretaker to oversee the elections.
Police on Saturday also arrested Abdul Awal Mintoo, a prominent businessman who is tied to the main opposition party, and an aide of opposition leader Khaleda Zia.
Information Minister Hasanul Huq Inu said the arrests were carried out on charges of instigating attacks on people and property. But they also highlight the resolve of Hasina's government to crack down on the opposition and forge ahead with the elections by January.
Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said the government had no other option but to make the arrests, accusing the leaders of instigating violence in recent weeks.
The leaders were arrested in two separate cases involving police charges of arson, smashing of vehicles and attacking police, Dhaka Metropolitan Police spokesman Masudur Rahman told reporters.
Later, they were produced before a court in Dhaka, the capital, amid tight security, with police seeking to detain each for 10 days for questioning as part of the investigation.
Defense counsels sought bail for the leaders, but the court rejected their pleas and told authorities to keep them in jail until Thursday.
Khandaker Mahbub Hossain, an adviser to Zia and also a defense counsel, said the charges were politically motivated.
"They are prominent leaders. They must be released if the government wants a peaceful process of resolving the crisis," Hossain said after the court decision.
Zia's party said the arrests would cause the anti-government protests to intensify.
Party spokesman Ruhul Kabir Rizvy told a news conference Saturday that the opposition-led strike, initially planned for 72 hours, was being increased to 84 hours to protest the arrests, meaning it will end Wednesday night.
Also on Saturday, Hasina bitterly criticized Zia at a rally and asked her to join talks.
Hasina and Zia, a former prime minister, are the most powerful leaders in Bangladesh and they have alternated as prime minister since 1991.
Hasina wants an all-party government to oversee the next elections, but Zia wants her to resign to pave the way for forming a caretaker government with people from outside of political parties.
Communications Minister Obaidul Quader said Thursday that members of Hasina's government would start resigning from Sunday to create the opportunity for forming an election-time government. The ruling party leaders say they are ready to form a government with other parties if Zia's party refuses to join.
On Saturday, police also raided houses of a former speaker and four other leaders of Zia's party. In response, opposition supporters torched and smashed vehicles in Dhaka and other districts across the country, television stations reported.
Over the last two weeks, the opposition has enforced general strikes totaling 120 hours. The strikes have turned violent, with at least 18 people dead.
The latest developments come at a time of deep tension in Bangladesh, a nation struggling to overcome extreme poverty, rancorous politics and a string of horrific accidents linked to the garment industry.
In addition to the election-related chaos, a war crimes tribunal stemming from Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence from Pakistan has become another incendiary political issue.
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