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Sheikh Hasina, Khaleda Zia in rare talk

October 27, 2013

DHAKA, Oct 26: Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed invited opposition leader Khaleda Zia to dinner as they held rare talks on Saturday in a bid to defuse a mounting crisis over forthcoming parliamentary elections.

But Khaleda Zia, who has demanded that Sheikh Hasina quit and make way for a caretaker government to supervise the polls due in January 2014, spurned the premier’s appeal to call off a three-day general strike starting on Sunday.

The 40-minute phone conversation — part of which was aired by television stations — was believed to be the first time in at least a decade that the two leaders, both of whom have served twice as premier, have spoken, observers say.

The premier’s invitation came a day after tensions spiked as supporters of Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its Islamist allies clashed with the ruling party and police in cities and towns across the nation, leaving at least seven people dead and hundreds injured.

“I am inviting you to the prime minister’s residence on October 28,” Sheikh Hasina said to Khaleda Zia by telephone, appealing for her rival to withdraw her strike call.

“The prime minister invited the leader of the opposition to a dinner at her residence. She urged her to withdraw the strike [call] for the sake of the people. She urged her to end violence and invited her for talks,” the premier’s aide Mahbubul Haque Shakil said.

But Khaleda Zia dismissed Sheikh Hasina’s request to call off the strike, her spokesman Maruf Kamal Khan said. “She is ready to hold talks after the end of the strike on October 29,” Mr Khan said.

Bangladesh’s politics have been held hostage for two decades by bitter rivalry between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, who are known as the “battling begums”.

On Friday, paramilitaries and police fired at thousands of rampaging opposition supporters after they hit the streets, defying a government ban on rallies.

Police said opposition supporters attacked them with small bombs, firearms and sticks, prompting them to open fire.

Khaleda Zia, who addressed a rally of over 100,000 supporters on Friday, had branded the government “illegal” as of that day, citing a legal provision that required a neutral caretaker government to be set up three months before elections.

But Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League abolished the provision in 2011, handing the job of overseeing polls to an overhauled election commission.—AFP