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Bangladesh marks Bengali New Year amid security

Written by: Staff
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DHAKA, Apr 14 (Reuters) Bangladesh's feuding prime minister and opposition leader today exchanged greetings on Bengali New Year's day rekindling hopes they might go further in trying to resolve political and other problems.

The news came as Bangladeshis poured onto the streets of the capital, Dhaka, to welcome in the New Year, closely watched by thousands of security forces.

Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, now visiting Turkey, sent a greetings card to Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina through her aides, while Hasina despatched a card to Khaleda's office.

It was the first time that the bitter rivals had exchanged good wishes formally in many years. The two have nagging differences on a number of critical issues, including reform of the electoral system.

Khaleda's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Hasina's Awami League are also in dispute over including the fundamentalist Jammaat-e-Islami party in hoped-for talks on electoral reforms.

Jamaat is a partner in Khaleda's coalition government.

Opposition parties accuse it of opposing Bangladesh's 1971 independence from Pakistan and of helping the Pakistani army.

Bangladeshis hope the pair can overcome their differences and work together to make next year's parliamentary elections free and fair, and stamp out Islamist militants fighting to introduce sharia law in Bangladesh, a mainly Muslim democracy.

''I still believe our top leaders can put aside mutual mistrust and bad faith, and strive to address major issues confronting the nation,'' said one senior government official, Shahidul Islam, today.

The traditional New Year festival features open-air concerts, dance and drama shows, exchange of greetings and sweets, food shops selling traditional Bengali dishes and roadside fairs thronged by people in colourful dress.

Authorities said they had deployed 10,000 extra police and put paramilitary troops on stand-by to prevent feared attacks by outlawed Islamist groups and other militants during festivities to usher in Pahela Baishakh, the first day of Bengali year 1413.

Ten people were killed and many wounded in bomb attacks at a musical evening in Dhaka on Pahela Baishakh five years ago.

''We have taken all precautions to make the celebrations peaceful and joyful,'' State Minister for Home Affairs Lutfuzzaman Babar said yesterday.

Bangladesh has been rocked in recent months by a series of Islamist bomb attacks, including suicide bombings. At least 30 people have been killed and 150 wounded since August last year.

The government says the militancy has nearly been crushed after the capture of top leaders of two outlawed groups, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen and Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh.

REUTERS KD SP1322

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