Anti-government strike cripples Bangladesh cities

An opposition-sponsored general strike Thursday aimed at forcing new elections shut down stores and schools and disrupted traffic across Bangladeshi cities and towns. The opposition Awami League party and its 13 smaller allies called the nationwide dawn-to-dusk strike. The opposition has accused Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's four-party coalition government of corruption, incompetence and authoritarianism, allegations the government denies. Zia has vowed to remain in power until her five-year term expires in October next year, paving the way for new elections within three months.

In Dhaka, the capital city of 10 million people, streets were almost empty and most public transportation not running. Commuters either walked in sunny weather or rode tricycle rickshaws that were allowed by the strike organizers to operate.

In downtown Dhaka, some protesters threw stones at a few buses that defied the strike, witnesses said. Police detained several demonstrators, they said.

General strikes are a common opposition protest tactic in Bangladesh. They sometimes turn violent, with clashes between strike supporters and opponents or police.

Although the strikes are often unpopular with the public, businesses and schools frequently obey calls by organizers to close and many people keep their cars off the roads, fearing retribution from the strikers.

Police erected barbed-wire barricades around the Awami League party's headquarters in central Dhaka, preventing about 500 activists inside from marching through the streets, a common opposition practice during such protest. The protesters instead squatted inside the cordoned area, shouting anti-government slogans such as "Down with the corrupt government," "Quit power, hold elections."

Dhaka authorities deployed more than 7,000 police to prevent violence, a police statement said. No major violence was immediately reported.

Security was similarly tight in the country's more than 60 other cities and towns, which also were hit by the protest, opposition spokesman Abdul, reports the AP. I.L.

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