DHAKA, Oct 28: Fresh uncertainty shrouded Bangladesh's turbulent political scene today after a presidential spokesman said the man chosen to act as interim head of government was too ill to take the oath of office.
Former Supreme Court chief justice K M Hasan was to have been sworn in as caretaker leader today, taking over from Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, whose five-year mandate ended yesterday. A general election is due in January.
The stage had been set for Hasan to step in despite vociferous opposition charges that he was biased in favour of the government and thus unsuitable to organise the elections.
But a presidential spokesman said late yesterday that Hasan was ill and unable to take the oath today.
''A time for the swearing-in ceremony has yet to be set ...
but we are ready,'' said the spokesman. He did not explain the nature of Hasan's illness.
A 14-party opposition alliance led by former prime minister Sheikh Hasina strongly opposes Khaleda's plan to install Hasan as interim administrator, citing his past association with the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
The alliance vowed to paralyse the country from today if the government went ahead with the plan, and urged President Iajuddin Ahmed not to swear Hasan in to avert a worse political crisis.
The opposition also called on Hasan to refuse the post.
''We hope K M Hasan will be able to assess the gravity of the situation'' and turn down the caretaker job, said Tofayel Ahmed, one of the leaders of Hasina's Awami League.
Hasan's sudden illness, which newspapers today said could indicate his unwillingness to accept the job, has added to the political uncertainty. Opposition leaders said they would not ease pressure until the ''caretaker drama'' was over.
''Everything is still fluid ... though we are hoping that Hasan will be dropped showing respect for the people's demand,'' Awami general secretary Abdul Jalil said today.
Street battles broke out between rival political activists yesterday evening after Prime Minister Khaleda finished her farewell address on state television, when she called for peace once she steps down today.
Protesters blocked highways, burned vehicles, attacked offices of the BNP and the homes of some ministers yesterday, police and witnesses said.
At least six people were killed and more than 200 injured in the mayhem that continued past midnight.
Hundreds of rival activists gathered on the streets of the capital again today, ahead of planned rallies by the BNP and Awami League in the afternoon.
Witnesses said police fired blank shots and used batons to disperse opposition activists from marching to Dhaka's Paltan ground for the rally. Some 50 activists were injured, witnesses said.
The capital Dhaka appeared largely deserted today with very few vehicles moving under the watchful eyes of massed riot police and paramilitary troops, a Reuters cameraman said.
The city's popular transport rickshaws were mostly off, too. Hundreds of travellers unable to reach the city yesterday because of the violence were trying to enter the city on foot early today, witnesses said.
''We are facing a very volatile and unpredictable situation,'' one police officer said. ''The uncertainties are lingering and tension deepening.''