DHAKA, Bangladesh — President Hussain Mohammed Ershad offered to hold early elections in a speech to the nation Saturday, 24 hours after he declared a state of emergency to quell growing unrest.
The government, meanwhile, imposed strict press censorship, banning all reports on the political opposition and on anything deemed critical of the government. Curfews stilled the streets of Dhaka and four other cities.
Ershad's offer came in a 25-minute address broadcast over radio and television. The former army general, who seized power in 1982 in a bloodless military coup, did not specify when elections might be held or what offices they would fill.
But he hinted that the elections would be for a new Parliament.
'Will Hand Over Power'
"If the people vote for a change of the government, I will not hesitate to happily hand over power to the victorious party," Ershad said.
He assured the nation that the elections, which were not to have been held until 1991, would be fair.
The opposition has accused Ershad's government of mismanaging the economy and rigging the balloting that elected him president a year ago. His Jatiya Party has a majority in the country's 330-seat Parliament, elected in May, 1986.
Through three weeks of demonstrations and general strikes, the opposition has been calling for Ershad to step down before any new elections. It wants a neutral caretaker government to administer new elections and decide the nation's form of government.
The two main opposition politicians, Sheik Hasina and Khaleda Zia, reportedly rejected the idea of new elections under Ershad's government when the president sought their support.
Under House Arrest
The two women have been under house arrest since Nov. 11, a day after the unrest began. Hasina is the daughter of assassinated President Sheik Mujibur Rahman. Zia is the widow of slain President Ziaur Rahman.
Ershad offered Saturday to meet with the opposition, which has refused to enter into such talks.
He said what has occurred in the past three weeks in the name of democracy was sheer terrorism and anarchy--"No welfare can be possible through indiscipline like bombing, removal of railroad tracks and destroying government property."
He went on: "It was in the interest of democracy, social peace and economic well-being that I had to proclaim state of emergency much against my own wishes."
The government estimated that general strikes have cost the nation nearly $48 million a day.
Earlier Saturday, Information Minister Anwar Zahid ordered the press restrictions, saying mention of meetings, strikes, processions, rallies or bombing would be forbidden except when the information is provided by the government.
"The law of the land requires that henceforth the reporting will be strictly one-sided," said Zahid. "I know it is not a happy situation, but it has been done to bring happy situations back."
He did not specify the punishment for violating the government order, but laws provide up to three years in jail. The order applies to domestic and foreign journalists alike.
In Dhaka, Saturday's newspapers prominently displayed news of the imposition of emergency and various orders banning meetings and strikes, but there were no reports on opposition activities.
Truckloads of riot police and paramilitary forces patrolled the capital.