DHAKA, BANGLADESH, NOV. 9 -- The government halted bus, train and ferry boat service into Dhaka, closed universities and invoked laws against public assembly on the eve of an opposition effort to force the resignation of President Hussain Mohammed Ershad.
Ershad said the steps taken by the government, including the preventive arrest of more than 1,400 people and the deployment of thousands of riot police, were necessary because the opposition's planned "siege of Dhaka" is unconstitutional.
"I can meet this challenge," Ershad, an Army general who came to power in 1982 after a coup d'etat, was quoted as saying. "I am a military man, and I know the meaning of the word siege."
According to organizers of the demonstration, at least 50,000 protesters have filtered into the city despite the government's efforts.
"We will paralyze the government," opposition leader Hassina Wajed said. Wajed, who heads the Awami League, said that about 5,000 people have been arrested by the government to prevent the confrontation.
This afternoon, a few hundred demonstrators affiliated with the opposition Bangladesh National Party clashed with policemen near Dhaka University. National Party leader Khaleda Zia said that she and about 100 other demonstrators were injured in the incident.
The demonstrations were the latest -- and were expected to be the largest -- in a series of antigovernment protests that began in June. The movement was given strength recently when Wajed and Zia united their forces against Ershad. Zia is the widow of President Ziaur Rahman, who was assassinated in 1981. Wajed is the daughter of President Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh, who was assassinated in 1975.
Since it achieved independence from Pakistan in 1971, impoverished, overpopulated Bangladesh -- 100 million people crowded into a place the size of Wisconsin -- has been buffeted by political and natural turmoil, assassinations and coups, floods and cyclones, leaving the country dependent on foreign aid, of which it receives more than $2 billion a year.
In the five years of Ershad's rule, Bangladesh has had steady if unspectacular growth, about 4 percent a year. At the same time, Ershad has undertaken to reform the economy, and among other things he has returned many government-run industries to private ownership. But Ershad's opponents contend that his government is shot through with corruption.
"Corruption is indigenous in Bangladesh," a western diplomat said. f Dhaka." It was to have taken place in October, but September floods forced a one-month delay.
After the floods, Ershad turned out the army's 80,000 men to help in the relief effort, and some of the steam that had built up over the summer went out of the opposition movement.
"The siege was intended to be the culmination of a series of demonstrations," a Western diplomat said, "but somehow the people's hearts don't seem to be in it now."
As a result, what had appeared to be a serious threat to the government is now being seen as a possible government victory; and a victory for Ershad, another diplomat said, would reassure the military and business community.
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LAT-WP 11-09 1801EST