Rebel politicians get police protection in Bangladesh

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DHAKA, Nov 14 (Reuters) A rebel faction of one of Bangladesh's main political groups entered the central offices of their party under heavy police guard today, signalling a major change in the country's political landscape.

The offices of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of detained former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia had been locked since January when the army-backed interim government took charge and banned all political activity.

Witnesses said police cordoned off the BNP headquarters in Dhaka to allow reformists to enter the building.

The BNP rebel faction, led by Khaleda's former finance minister Saifur Rahman and ex-commerce minister Hafizuddin Ahmed, has been invited by the Election Commission (EC) to talks on November 22 to prepare for delayed elections.

An election planned for January 22 was cancelled at the start of the year following months of violence.

Khaleda demanded the EC invitation to Hafizuddin's group be withdrawn, threatening legal action against the commission if it is not.

While a response from the EC is still awaited, the authorities reopened the BNP office to the rebels, who call themselves reformists.

Witnesses said the newly emerged top dissidents in Khaleda's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) entered its central office at Dhaka's Naya Paltan area under heavy police guard.

Reporters at the scene said police also took up positions on roads and alleys around the BNP office, fearing that Khaleda loyalists, led by ousted BNP secretary-general Khandaker Delwar Hossain, might storm the office.

''We are here to keep order and see that no violence occurs,'' said one police officer.

Khaleda has been in jail since early September facing charges of corruption and abuse of power. Her bitter rival Sheikh Hasina, another former prime minister and chief of the Awami League, has also been in prison since July, awaiting possible trial for similar charges.

The interim authority, headed by former central bank chief Fakhruddin Ahmed, says it remains firmly committed to hold a free and fair election before end of next year.

REUTERS SV KP1331

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