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Hunt for interim leader provokes riots in B'desh

BANGLADESH: Bangladesh's hunt for an interim government to steer the country through to January elections turned more stressful on Sunday after the opposition rejected the president's offer to head a caretaker team.

The crisis has already sparked two days of riots in the capital, Dhaka, and other cities in which 16 people have been killed and hundreds injured.

President Iajuddin Ahmed put himself forward at talks on Saturday evening with senior leaders of outgoing Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the main opposition Awami League.

The presidential gesture came after former Supreme Court chief justice, K.M. Hasan, withdrew just hours before he was due to be sworn in as chief of a caretaker administration. Khaleda's five-year term ended on Friday.

A 14-party opposition alliance led by Awami chief and former prime minister Sheikh Hasina had refused to accept Hasan in the key post because of his past association with the BNP.

"I was prepared to serve ... the national interest, but the level of mistrust between the political parties has made my position untenable," Hasan said in a statement on Saturday.

"It is best I should stand aside rather than be a hurdle to the political process."

Under the constitution, Hasan, as the immediate past chief justice, is first choice to head the interim administration. If he declines or is deemed unfit, one of his predecessors, not above the age of 72, should be chosen as an alternative.

Two other former chief justices - Mahmudul Amin Chowdhury and Hamidul Haque - are now contenders for the post. The opposition said they had no objection to either of them.

But the ruling BNP and its ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami party, are believed to object to the appointment of either Chowdhury or Haque, officials monitoring the transition said. Media carried similar reports.

The Awami League denounced what it called a BNP conspiracy. Other parties urged the president to act prudently to avoid further controversy and avert more violence.

"I can smell a conspiracy in the attempts to put the country's president in charge of the interim government," Hasina told reporters late on Saturday.

"I appeal to all Bangladeshis to remain alert and stay tuned to the developments and face them accordingly," she said.

The president on Sunday summoned leaders of smaller parties to his official residence to discuss the issues, a presidential spokesman said, without giving details.

They included former military ruler Hossain Mohammad Ershad who now heads the Jatiya Party and who recently said he might join an alliance led by Khaleda.

Some political analysts say Iajuddin might be trying to muster the support of "third and fourth-ranking" parties in favour of his candidacy as the caretaker chief.

Earlier, Khaleda had told a rally in the capital that her party would accept whatever the president decided and that all other parties should agree to it.

Legal experts say the president can head a caretaker team only if no retired chief justice - or non-political, non-partisan figure acceptable to all parties - is available.

The caretaker authority's job is to steer Bangladesh to general elections within three months of expiry of the outgoing government's term, and then hand power to a newly elected team.

Fierce street battles between supporters of rival parties which erupted on Friday have killed 16 people in the last two days, police and hospitals said.

"We are still facing a dangerously turbulent situation," said a police officer on Sunday. "Anything may happen anytime," he told Reuters.

"Bangladesh has never faced such a political dilemma in more than 20 years," said a senior government official, who asked not to be named.

Protesters blocked highways, burned vehicles, and attacked offices of Khaleda's BNP and the homes of some ministers, police and witnesses said.

Communications between Dhaka and the rest of the country have been disrupted since Friday night, officials and transport operators said.

DHAKA, Sunday, Reuters

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