Dhaka: Five top leaders of Bangladesh`s main opposition BNP have been arrested, hours after Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party announced a 72-hour nationwide strike from Sunday demanding a neutral caretaker government to oversee the next general elections.
Three members of BNP`s highest policymaking standing committee - Moudud Ahmed, MK Anwar and Rafiqul Islam Mia - were arrested by plainclothesmen here overnight.
They were arrested while returning to home after attending the anniversary celebration of a newspaper here. Mintoo and Biswas were whisked away from outside Zia`s Gulshan residence at around 1 am (local time), reports said.
Later, police detained Zia`s adviser and business tycoon Abdul Awal Mintu and her special assistant Shimul Biswas.
Witnesses said police were deployed on the streets and around Zia`s office and residence. A police officer described the intensified vigilance as "steps for her own security".
BNP alleged that police also carried out midnight raids at the houses of several other influential party leaders who went underground to evade arrests.
In protest against the arrests, BNP today extended the proposed shutdown by another 12 hours saying the strike would now continue for 84 hours until Wednesday evening.
Meanwhile, angry opposition activists took to the streets, setting several vehicles on fire and exploding bombs.
Police is yet to say on what charges the BNP leaders were detained or arrested but Information Minister Hassanul Haq Inu told newsmen last night the government was forced to arrest them under a "extraordinary situation".
"We were forced to take the tougher stand in an extra- ordinary situation to protect the nation from acts of anarchy ... The people are getting killed," he said.
Inu did not elaborate on the anarchy, but according to reports the opposition leaders in a closed door meeting with Zia last night planned to go ahead with a nationwide strike on November 10, 11 and 12 to mount pressure on government.
This will be the third prolonged strike in two weeks.
In a hurriedly called press conference here, BNP`s joint secretary general Ruhul Kabir Rizvi blasted the government for the "crackdown" and termed the arrests as manifestation of the government aggression on opposition.
"But tougher action will await the government unless our leaders are freed immediately," he said.
Premier Sheikh Hasina and her arch-rival Zia are the most powerful leaders in Bangladesh and they have alternated as prime minister since 1991.
Hasina last month proposed an all-party government for election oversight, but Zia rejected the proposal and floated a formula for creating a neutral caretaker regime.
The detained leaders have been kept in police custody at Detective Branch office. Dhaka Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner Masudur Rahman said they would be produced before a court for subsequent legal actions "at the right time".
The strike, set to begin at 6am tomorrow, would the third spell of the opposition stoppage. The BNP-led alliance earlier called the first 60-hour shutdown from October 27 and second one from November 4 that witnessed deaths of 20 people.
The strikes largely paralyzed the public life, forced authorities to defer twice dates of two crucial public examinations secondary and primary students and halted businesses including export-import activities.
The tougher government stance came after a report from Washington said that US President Barack Obama instructed the State Department officials to "ramp up consultations" with India on the political crisis in Bangladesh.
According to the media report, the US officials had earlier told New Delhi that they are "more comfortable" with BNP but Obama`s direction came after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally raised concerns on the current political crisis in Bangladesh against the backdrop of fears of growth of radical elements in the country.
Bangladeshi newspapers and TV channels widely covered the report which said Obama took Singh`s concerns seriously and asked for increased discussions with India while the issue was also discussed separately in detail by Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon and his American counterpart Susan Rice.
India, however, has said that it was not a party in Bangladesh`s internal politics or in the loggerheads of the two major political parties over the electoral system but wanted a credible election for continued democratic process in the neighbouring country.
US ambassador to Bangladesh Dan Mozena is now on a two week tour to his country to brief higher authorities in Washington about the Bangladesh situation after his talks with senior India`s Ministry of External Affairs officials in Delhi and its high commissioner in Dhaka on the situation.
Foreign relation expert Amena Begum called Obama`s directive "a bit unusual", saying "it might have an implication in Bangladesh`s internal politics amid the current standoff".
The opposition demands installation of a "non-party" poll-time government amending the constitution, saying elections with Hasina being the premier would not be credible.
Minister without portfolio Suranjit Sengupta and several other senior Awami League leaders yesterday said the door for dialogue was still open and the opposition was welcome to join and discuss ways to resolve the standoff.
"The door for dialogue is open. It can start any time," the information minister told a press conference two days ago shortly after BNP`s acting secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said the opposition too awaited the dialogue and would not give up on efforts to find a solution through talks.