Bangladesh opposition renews protest call. But government says crackdown will cool simmering political crisis

Despite almost a week of violent clashes between police and protesters, Bangladesh's opposition movement is continuing its push for the ouster of President Hussain Muhammad Ershad. The opposition has called for a nationwide strike for today and tomorrow. Numerous clashes have occurred since last Tuesday as police responded to a series of half-day general strikes called by the opposition parties. At least four people have been killed at demonstrations or in several bombings. Police have been ordered to shoot rioters on sight, though so far they have used restraint.

Early last week, the government imposed a week-long ban on processions and rallies and severely curtailed transport into the city. The government says some 1,200 people have been arrested under preventive detention laws. Opposition sources say that at least another 5,000 supporters have been arrested on various pretexts.

As a result, the opposition's plan to show hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating failed to materialize.

The two main opposition leaders, Awami League president Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Bangladesh Nationalist Party chief Begum Khaleda Zia, have been put under house arrest. Attempts to arrest other top leaders have forced them underground.

The opposition demands that President Ershad and his government step down immediately so that new elections can be held.

Mr. Ershad, a former Army officer, came to power in a 1982 military coup. In late 1986, he resigned from the Army and was elected civilian President by a vote the opposition claims was rigged. His government has also been charged with corruption.

Ershad insists he was legally elected, and his Jatiya Party enjoys a majority in the parliament. There is thus little prospect of a resignation.

Politicians and academics not directly associated with either of the feuding groups now paint a grim picture of the country's political situation. ``A volcano-like eruption can take place in the country any time,'' says Ataur Rahman Khan, the first prime minister under Ershad rule.

Other observers suggest there is reason to be concerned that Bangladesh is moving towards a civil war.

In a letter issued to the press, a group of former judges, diplomats, economists, and lawyers appealed to all concerned to shun violence and to agree on holding new, free and fair elections to resolve the political crisis. They called for the immediate release of opposition leaders.

The government seems to believe the opposition has been beaten. President Ershad has said that strong police measures against lawbreakers will encourage more and more people to disregard the opposition's call for protests. Thus, he says, the heated situation will cool down.

A compromise between the government and the opposition, however, seems distant.

The opposition parties are not willing to take part in any election under Ershad, and therefore a midterm election with him still in power does not offer a solution. And Ershad at this moment is not ready to concede to midterm elections.

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