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Bangladesh's "battling begums" finally agree to talk

world Updated: Nov 13, 2008 15:35 IST
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Bangladesh's two former prime ministers, Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia, have agreed to meet ahead of next month's elections, aides said on Thursday, ending over 15 years of frosty silence between them.

Hossain Zillur Rahman, an adviser (minister) to the army-backed interim government, said authorities were ready to take any measure to arrange talks between the "battling begums", as they are known at home.

A "begum" is a Muslim woman of rank.

Hasina and Khaleda last sat down together in 1990 while jointly leading a people's revolt to oust military ruler Hossain Mohammad Ershad.

But they fell out shortly after and despite alternating as prime minister since, their bitter personal differences and sometimes bloody animosity between the parties they lead has undermined Bangladesh politics.

Hasina leads the Awami League, while Khaleda heads the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

The interim government, as well as analysts and diplomats, hope talks between the two ex-premiers would help resolve a number of issues that threaten to derail the Dec. 18 election.

The BNP, which has still to confirm its participation in the poll, wants it postponed for another two months, while the Awami League, which has said it will take part, wants it held on time.

Analysts say the participation of both major parties is crucial to ensure peaceful voting and a smooth return to democracy.

Khaleda and Hasina were both arrested last year on corruption charges after an interim authority tasked with overseeing election instead cancelled the poll and later declared emergency rule.

The two were released earlier this year, but charges against them have not been dropped.

Even before any meeting takes place, aides have a lot of details to work out.

Awami Spokesman Syed Ashraful Islam said Hasina wanted talks with a specific agenda. "Problems won't be solved if we just meet and have a cup of tea," he quoted her as saying.

European envoys on Wednesday.

BNP spokesman Nazrul Islam Khan told reporters that Khaleda wanted the opposite. "Our leader thinks discussions won't be as fruitful as desired if they are subject-specific," he said.