NEW DELHI, DEC. 4 -- Bangladeshi President Hussein Mohammed Ershad resigned from office tonight, the country's state-run television network reported, following weeks of mounting opposition protests, strikes and violence.
Ershad plans to call a special session of parliament Saturday and has invited opposition leaders to name a caretaker chief executive who would govern the country until new elections are held, according to reports from the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, where press censorship and a state of emergency were imposed by the government last week.
The reported resignation marks a significant victory for Bangladesh's fractured political opposition, which includes social democrats who favor a free-market economy and hard-line communists who advocate nationalization of all enterprise in the densely populated Moslem country of 110 million people.
The opposition has been trying to bring down Ershad, a retired general and former martial law administrator, since he took power in a bloodless coup in 1982.
Ranked as the world's fifth poorest country by the World Bank, Bangladesh has an average life expectancy of 51 years and per capita income of less than $200 annually, and it has been visited regularly by natural and man-made disasters.
Although Ershad's grip on office has been weakened by years of perceived drift and corruption in his government, as well as the recent popular unrest, he apparently hopes to regain the presidency by contesting elections next year.
It is not yet clear how far Ershad will go to facilitate a free and fair vote. By resigning and asking the opposition to nominate an interim leader, he has deprived his politically diverse opponents of the principal basis of their unity.
"The ball is now in the opposition's court," Ershad said today, according to state television.
Ershad's announcement followed a day of widespread public protest in Bangladesh, as thousands of people defied curfews and took to the streets in Dhaka and the southern port of Chittagong, to call for Ershad's ouster. About 70 people have been killed and hundreds injured in protests in the last four weeks.
An eight-hour general strike called by the opposition paralyzed life in the major cities, according to news reports. Opposition leaders had announced earlier this week that they would continue to organize strikes and protests until Ershad quit.
On Monday, Ershad offered what he called a compromise plan, under which he promised to resign before elections next year, end press censorship, lift the state of emergency, reconstitute the Election Commission, and invite outside observers to supervise a vote.
But opposition leaders today rejected the president's offer, saying it was only a ploy to allow him to cling to office and rig elections, and they insisted that Ershad should resign immediately. and the thousands of protesters who turned out in support indicated broad popular support for this stand.