Bangladeshi President Iajuddin Ahmed stepped in yesterday to try to defuse an acute political crisis over the formation of a caretaker government to steer the nation through to January general elections.
Ahmed began consulting the leaders of feuding parties, seeking a way out of a confrontation which has already seen 19 people killed and hundreds injured in three days of street clashes in Dhaka and other towns and cities.
The president first intervened on Saturday -- the day Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia's five-year mandate expired and former Supreme Court chief justice K.M. Hasan was to have taken charge of an interim administration to prepare for national elections.
With parties in opposition adamantly opposed to the arrangement, claiming Hasan was a government stooge, the former judge withdrew just hours before he was due to be sworn in.
"I was prepared to serve ... the national interest, but the level of mistrust between the political parties has made my position untenable," he said in a statement on Saturday.
"It is best I should stand aside rather than be a hurdle to the political process," Hasan added.
Ahmed then proposed taking his place in a compromise that Khaleda's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) appeared to favor but the main opposition Aawami League rejected.
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 instead.
Two other former chief justices -- Mahmudul Amin Chowdhury and Hamidul Haque -- fit that category. The opposition said they had no objection to either of them.
But the ruling BNP and its allies in the Jamaat-e-Islami party are believed to object to choosing either man, officials monitoring the transition said.
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," Awami leader Sheikh Hasina, a former prime minister, told reporters.
"I appeal to all Bangladeshis to remain alert and stay tuned to the developments and face them accordingly," she said.
Ahmed then summoned the leaders of two smaller parties to his official residence yesterday to discuss the issues, a presidential spokesman said.
"Leaders of the Jatiya Party of former military ruler Hossain Mohammad Ershad have completed their round with the president while Jamaat leaders are now in the talks," the spokesman said.
He said the president expected to meet BNP and Awami leaders for further talks later.
Fierce street battles which erupted on Friday continued at different places on yesterday, killing three more people to take the toll to 19, police said.
"We are still facing a dangerously turbulent situation," said one police officer. "Anything may happen anytime," he said.
Thousands of protesters, carrying sticks and chanting slogans, gathered in central Dhaka yesterday for a planned afternoon rally.
"Bangladesh has never faced such a political dilemma in more than 20 years," one senior government official said.
Protesters blocked roads, burned vehicles, and attacked BNP offices and the homes of some ministers, police and witnesses said.