Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed invited opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia to dinner as they held rare talks yesterday in a bid to defuse a mounting crisis over parliamentary elections.
But Zia, who has demanded that Hasina quit and make way for a caretaker government to supervise the polls due in January 2014, spurned the premier's appeal to call off a three-day general strike to start today.
The 40-minute phone conversation -a part of which was aired by television stations - was believed to be the first time in at least a decade that Hasina and Zia, who has served twice as premier, have spoken, observers say.
Hasina's invitation came a day after tensions spiked as supporters of Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its Islamist allies clashed with the ruling party and police in cities and towns across the nation, leaving at least seven people dead and hundreds injured.
"I am inviting you to the prime minister's residence on October 28," Hasina said to Zia.
That portion of the conversation was shown on television.
But Zia dismissed Hasina's request to call off the strike, her spokesman Maruf Kamal Khan said. "She is ready to hold talks after the end of the strike on October 29," Khan said.
There was no immediate comment from Hasina's office on Zia's decision to go ahead with the strike or whether it would affect the dinner invitation.
Bangladesh's politics have been held hostage for two decades by bitter rivalry between Hasina and Zia, who are known as the "battling begums".
"Begum" is an honorific for Muslim women of rank in the mainly Islamic country.
On Friday, paramilitaries and police fired at thousands of rampaging opposition supporters after they hit the streets, defying a government ban on rallies.
Police said opposition supporters attacked them with small bombs, firearms and sticks, prompting them to open fire.
Zia branded the government "illegal" as of that day, citing a legal provision that required a neutral caretaker government to be set up three months before elections. But Hasina's ruling Awami League abolished the provision in 2011.