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Bangladesh police charge 44 opposition activists

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Police charged 44 opposition activists, including senior leaders, for their alleged role in bomb explosions and vandalism during an opposition-sponsored general strike that disrupted daily life across Bangladesh for a second day Monday.

The strike was called to protest the disappearance of an opposition official that his party blames on the government and security agencies. They deny involvement and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has accused the opposition of hiding Elias Ali to create anarchy in the South Asian country.

Junior Home Minister Shamsul Haque Tuku said Monday that the opposition must take responsibility for violence and explosions in the capital, Dhaka, on Sunday. At least a dozen homemade bombs exploded in parts of the city, two of which were thrown at two parked cars belonging to the home affairs minister and the deputy interior minister. Strikers smashed about a dozen vehicles that tried to defy the shutdown.

Around midnight on Sunday, detectives arrested Qamruzzaman Ratan, an opposition leader and friend of Ali as he left a television station following a late-night talk show he took part in, said police official Masudur Rahman. Rahman said he was one of the opposition leaders suspected of instigating Sunday's violence.

A few hours later, police searched the house of Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, who is a close aide of opposition leader Khaleda Zia and acting secretary general of her Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

Alamgir's wife, Rahat Ara Begum, said her husband was not at home during the raid.

The arrest and the raid followed the filing of two police cases late Sunday against Alamgir and 43 other opposition activists for their alleged role in Sunday's bomb blasts and vandalism, Dhaka Metropolitan Police official Imam Hossain said. Hossain said police were investigating the incidents.

Separately, security officials arrested a former deputy minister and two other opposition members who were demonstrating in front of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party headquarters in downtown Dhaka on Monday. It was not clear immediately what specific charges could be brought against them.

Police also cordoned off the headquarters of the main opposition party and broke up a number of protest marches in the capital.

Zia's party is leading the 18-party opposition alliance that is enforcing the strike to demand the return of Ali, who has been missing for nearly two weeks. Last week, the opposition led a three-day strike. Reports say 22 people, mostly politicians, have disappeared this year. Local and international human rights groups blame security agencies, but authorities deny this.

Ali's disappearance has further complicated Bangladesh's fragile parliamentary democracy, already marred by a history of military coups since its independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Schools and most businesses remained closed in Dhaka and other major cities and towns on Monday, prompting a leading business chamber to make a call for alternative anti-government protests.

The Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the strike was hurting the impoverished nation's economy and urged opposition parties to shun it. It was affecting the country's overseas trade because transportation was being seriously disrupted and consignments were stuck at ports, it said.

Bangladesh earns about $18 billion each year from exports of garments, mainly to the United States and Europe.