Bangladesh Leader Taps Himself for Post

The Associated Press
Sunday, October 29, 2006; 2:58 PM

DHAKA, Bangladesh -- Bangladesh's president installed himself as leader of the country's caretaker government Sunday, hoping to end days of deadly rioting over a political standoff ahead of national elections.

While the opposition had previously rejected President Iajuddin Ahmed as an unacceptable choice as interim leader, opposition head Sheikh Hasina greeted the announcement with a surprisingly muted response.

"The president should have appointed another person as the head of the caretaker government instead of himself taking over the charge," said Hasina, herself a former prime minister. "However, we hope that the president will act neutral and impartial in conducting the next general election. We will keep him under watch."

The streets of this crowded, impoverished city were deserted Sunday night after Ahmed was sworn in to replace Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, whose government finished its five-year term Friday and was constitutionally required to transfer power to an interim administration that will lead the country through January elections.

Even the city's normally ubiquitous tricycle rickshaws quickly left the streets amid fears of renewed violence after the announcement.

"There was no alternative, but to take charge to end the chaos," Ahmed said in a televised address Sunday. He promised to hold new elections on time, and urged cooperation from all parties.

Much of Bangladesh's political scene revolves around the battle for dominance between Zia and Hasina, the leaders of the country's two most powerful political families.

Hasina's father was the first prime minister of Bangladesh, while Zia came to prominence after her husband _ then the country's military leader _ was killed in 1981.

The clashes between Zia and Hasina's supporters have repeatedly filled the streets of Dhaka with rock-throwing protesters, riot police and the smog of tear gas. The rioting has left at least 27 killed _ including three politicians from Zia's coalition _ dozens of cars burned and dozens of shops looted.

The current crisis has paralyzed the country's transport links, threatened its economy and led to increasing worries that the military could step in to seize power. Bangladesh, where nearly half of the country's 144 million people live on less than $1 per day, has a long history of political unrest.

It has spent more than 15 years under military rule since it broke away from Pakistan in 1971, political killings occur frequently and, in recent years, an Islamic insurgency has further unsettled the political scene.

In 2001, when she stepped down as prime minister, Hasina became the first leader in the country's history to serve out a full term in office.

In the years leading up to then, the country had seen two presidential assassinations, three military coups and 19 failed coups.

Despite Hasina's even-tempered response, analysts worried the president's decision would do little to quell the standoff.

Retired army Maj. Gen. Syed Muhammad Ibrahim, a Dhaka-based writer on political issues, condemned the move, and said "there is a strong possibility of deepening the crisis."

Bangladesh's opposition, which on Friday launched the protests that have left 27 people dead and hundreds injured, had demanded a nonpartisan interim leader and had earlier rejected Ahmed _ who was previously elected as a candidate of Zia's party _ as a possible choice to lead the caretaker government.

Opposition politicians, lead by Hasina's Awami League coalition, have accused Zia's government of trying to rig the elections, and while Zia attended the swearing-in ceremony at the president's office, Hasina did not.

The opposition had earlier rejected another choice as interim leader, retired Chief Justice K.M. Hasan, saying he was too close the government. Opposition to Hasan had sparked the riots, and on Saturday, he declined the post.

Hasan said the doubts about his impartiality had led to his decision.

Hasina said she would not call off the protests.

"We will continue with the protests to press for the electoral reforms," she said.

© 2006 The Associated Press