DHAKA -  Bangladesh has launched a crackdown on the main opposition, arresting senior leaders after their party called a nationwide strike to force Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to resign and call elections under a caretaker government.

Police said three top Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leaders, including an ex-deputy prime minister, were arrested late Friday, and two key aides of main opposition leader Khaleda Zia, including a leading businessman, were taken into custody early Saturday. “The five have been accused of inciting violence, exploding bombs and obstructing officers in keeping law and order,” Dhaka deputy police commissioner Anisur Rahman told AFP.

BNP senior official Shamsuzzaman Dudu said at least 1,000 of the party’s supporters and officials in rural districts had also been arrested in a nationwide crackdown since Friday night.

Police were not available to comment on the BNP’s report of arrests in rural areas.

The clampdown came hours after the BNP and its Islamist allies called a three-day strike - its third shutdown in as many weeks. The strike, due to start Sunday, is part of a new wave of protests the BNP launched October 25 to force Hasina to quit and make way for a technocrat-led administration to organise general elections due in January. In response to the crackdown, the party extended the strike to a fourth day and its supporters went on a rampage in Dhaka and other centres, torching and damaging dozens of vehicles and clashing with police. Police said there were no immediate reports of injuries or deaths. Foreign minister Dipu Moni told reporters the government “was forced to arrest” the BNP leaders after they “instigated” violence by calling the new strike.

The BNP has branded the current government “illegal”, and says that under the law a neutral caretaker government must be set up before the elections.

Hasina has scrapped the caretaker system and instead proposed an all-party interim government led by herself to oversee the polls. At least 23 people have been killed in nationwide clashes during the latest bout of protests.

The BNP’s Dudu said police also raided houses of prominent opposition officials in Dhaka, including a former parliamentary speaker. “Almost all our leaders and senior officials are staying outside their homes to avoid arrest,” he told AFP, adding police had also taken up positions outside Zia’s residence. Bangladesh has been ruled alternately by Hasina and Zia since 1991, apart from when a military-backed government ran the country between 2007 and 2008.