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Bangladesh standoff raises fears of new crisis

Written by: Staff
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DHAKA, Apr 18 (Reuters) Bangladesh headed for a new political crisis today after the main opposition refused to sit down to talks with a government Islamist coalition partner and vowed to march on the prime minister's office.

Police ordered a 24-hour ban on rallies around Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia's office from today midnight to thwart tomorrow's planned march.

But opposition leaders said they would defy the ban, raising the fear of violence and a tough police response.

''They are trying to foil our plans by issuing threats and imposing bans. But we are not cowards,'' said former minister Abdur Razzak, a senior leader of Hasina's Awami League.

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.

Khaleda's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Sheikh Hasina's Awami League disagree on the inclusion of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party in hoped-for talks on electoral reforms.

Sheikh Hasina told an Awami League meeting on Monday that the opposition would reject a meeting with the BNP if it included a member of the Jamaat, BNP's coalition partner.

''Sitting for talks with Jamaat is same as talking to Shayek Abdur Rahman or Bangla Bhai,'' Hasina said, referring to the country's top Islamist militants captured by security forces in March.

Addressing an Awami rally in Dhaka today, Hasina, a former prime minister, said she was waiting for the government to accept her proposals for electoral reforms to make the next parliamentary election, due in January 2007, free and impartial.

''If they don't, we will make them accept,'' Hasina said, and asked her followers to join a campaign to force Khaleda out.

Two outlawed groups -- Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen and Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh -- are blamed for the series of bomb attacks and have sought to introduce Islamic Sharia law in Bangladesh.

The opposition accuses Jamaat of helping the Pakistani army during Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence against Pakistan and more lately of harbouring Islamist militants.

Hasina's comments came in response to remarks by BNP secretary-general Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan that a 14-party alliance led by the Awami League should not set preconditions for the talks and that Jamaat has a right to attend.

The debate has frustrated people hoping for an end to the nagging between key political parties.

''Such a standoff is suicidal for the country, its people and economy,'' said Monwarul Islam, a senior government official, today.

''The feuding politicians are pushing the country, already beset with problems including spiralling commodity prices and shortages of basic utilities, towards bigger chaos and uncertainties.'' REUTERS OM KP1855

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