(Bloomberg) -- Two senior Bangladeshi opposition leaders were arrested by plainclothes police officers as part of a crackdown ahead of a planned demonstration in the capital to force Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to step down and call for elections. 

Bangladesh has come under pressure in recent months as higher food and fuel costs have eaten into foreign currency reserves, prompting Hasina’s government to appeal for a $4.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. 

Opposition parties have said the crisis has stemmed from what they regard as a corrupt and authoritarian government. Supporters of Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which is the largest opposition group, want Hasina to resign and pave the way for elections that are due in January 2024 under a nonpartisan caretaker system.

Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, secretary-general of the BNP, and Mirza Abbas, one of its standing committee members, were taken away in the dead of night, the party said in a Facebook post, citing their families. 

The police confirmed the arrests, saying the two leaders incited attacks when a gathering of opposition supporters clashed with police officials on Wednesday. More than 50 policemen were seriously injured, Harun-or-Rashid, chief of the police detective branch, told reporters on Friday.

Bangladeshi police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse BNP protesters after they attempted to gather in Dhaka on Wednesday, leaving at least one dead and 100 people injured. The government has arrested more than 1,000 opposition leaders and supporters since Dec. 1, the party said. 

The BNP decided at an emergency meeting to hold Saturday’s rally in an open field instead of the streets of the capital, ending a standoff between the opposition party and the police over the choice of venue. 

The party live-streamed supporters arriving at the venue on Friday evening and chanting “Take Back Bangladesh” in what could become the largest political assembly for the BNP since its rule ended in 2006.

Despite the attempts to lower the political temperature, the mass arrests are a blow to the BNP, a former ruling party that has lost traction in Bangladesh for the past 16 years. Its chief and former premier Khaleda Zia is out on suspended sentences for corruption cases though her movement is restricted, while her son Tarique Rahman, the acting head of the party, lives in exile in London. 

“In recent weeks, we have seen an alarming escalation of repression by the authorities, who are carrying out mass arrests of political activists, raising serious concerns about violence, intimidation and harassment ahead of the parliamentary elections,” Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s regional director for South Asia, said in an emailed statement. 

(Updates with BNP holding rally from paragraph six onwards)

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.