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Khaleda Zia to go into exile: reports

Zia, who was prime minister until her five-year term ended in October, has been under virtual house arrest since last week.

world Updated: Apr 17, 2007 11:21 IST

Bangladesh's last prime minister Khaleda Zia is poised to go into exile under pressure from the military-backed government, officials told media on Tuesday, in return for her son's release from custody.

Reports in all the main papers said authorities, who have been waging a major crackdown on graft in a bid to clean up the political system, had agreed to free Zia's son Arafat Rahman Coco in exchange for her departure.

He was arrested on Sunday as part of the crackdown and the reports said he was freed overnight in a deal which -- if confirmed -- would reshape politics in the South Asian country, which is under emergency rule.

Zia, who was prime minister until her five-year term ended in October, has been under virtual house arrest since last week.

The Star newspaper said Zia, who heads the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), "will be leaving the country for Saudi Arabia in a couple of days."

"Initially, she will be leaving with a one-month visa to perform umrah (a pilgrimage) and her permanent residence there will be finalised upon reaching the kingdom of Saudi Arabia," it said, quoting a top government source.

Quoting another highly placed source, the Star said the Saudi government had agreed to host Zia, 61, and her family if she left Bangladesh willingly.

"The message was conveyed to Saudi Arabia through its embassy in Dhaka that she agreed to leave the country," it quoted the source as saying.

Large numbers of journalists gathered at Dhaka's main airport Monday night in anticipation of Zia's departure.

Bangladesh's military-backed interim government took power in January after President Iajuddin Ahmed declared a state of emergency and cancelled planned elections following months of political violence.

At the heart of the political turmoil was Zia's BNP and the opposition Awami League led by her arch rival Sheikh Hasina Wajed, also a former premier.

The two women's respective family dynasties have dominated the country's politics since independence from Pakistan in 1971, but they are said to hate each other and earned the nickname "the battling begums" -- 'begum' being an honorific Muslim title.

Their rival factions have frequently paralysed the country with strikes, blockades and violent street protests, with each side apparently viewing political power as a key to making huge amounts of money.

Hasina, 60, is currently on holiday in the United States and has already been charged in absentia with extortion and the murder of four political activists last October.

Authorities have warned she faces arrest if she dares to return home.

Hasina has dismissed the charges as "fake and false" and has vowed to fight them, although so far there has been no sign of her preparing to take the risk of flying home.

Reports of Zia's departure come just two weeks after Bangladesh's powerful army chief called for a clean sweep of the political landscape, saying previous democratic governments had bred corruption and crime.

Emergency rule has been popular among Bangladeshis, who appear to be in no hurry to return to destructive political infighting. Nearly half the country's 144 million population lives on less than a dollar a day.