DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is in Bangladesh to press tolerance, democracy and development in one of the world's most impoverished nations that is now in the throes political turmoil.
Clinton arrived Saturday in the capital of Dhaka, which has been increasingly tense in recent weeks with general strikes protesting the disappearance of an opposition leader and a crackdown on dissent. Homemade bombs have exploded around the city as the strikes have paralyzed the country, prompting the police to arrest dozens of opposition activists.
However, Clinton's visit — the first by a secretary of state to the country since 2003 — is expected to bring a brief respite as the opposition has suspended protests for the occasion in a goodwill gesture that reflects the importance Bangladeshis place on relations with the United States, one of their largest trading partners.
In talks with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, opposition leader Khaleda Zia and civic leaders, Clinton will stress the importance of inclusive democracy and unity to improve living conditions in the country of 160 million that the U.S. sees as a potentially important voice for moderation among Muslim majority nations.
American officials say the trip is aimed at taking U.S.-Bangladesh ties to a new level by creating a strategic dialogue and encouraging further cooperation on counterterrorism, health, environmental and educational issues. They believe Bangladeshis will be pleased with the message.
But dozens of students paraded through the campus of Dhaka University on Saturday to protest Clinton's visit, saying the U.S. cannot be a friend of Bangladesh and chanting, "Go, go Hillary."
At least 22 people, mostly politicians, have disappeared this year, according to a local human-rights group, Ain-o-Salish Kendra. Another Dhaka-based group, Odhikar, says more than 50 people have disappeared since 2010. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch blamed security agencies for the disappearances.
The anger over what the opposition says is political repression erupted into the streets after an opposition party leader, Elias Ali, went missing along with his driver April 17 from a street in Dhaka. His car was found later abandoned.
The opposition blamed the government and launched five days of general strikes over the past two weeks in protest. The government accused the opposition of hiding Ali to give it an excuse to create anarchy in the streets. He has still not been found.
Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said Bangladesh will press the U.S. to eliminate its 15.3 percent tariff on Bangladesh's vital garment industry. Bangladesh exported $5.1 billion worth of goods — mainly garments — to the U.S. last year and imported $676 million worth in return.
Bangladeshi officials believe that dropping the duty will send exports soaring even further and boost the economy.
The countries are also expected to discuss an investment and trade framework agreement that would protect the huge investments of U.S. energy giants like Chevron and ConocoPhillips.
Chevron, one of the biggest foreign investors here, supplies half Bangladesh's natural gas needs, while ConocoPhillips is exploring for gas in the deep waters of the Bay of Bengal.
In Dhaka, Clinton is also expected to raise the issue of Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Yunus' ouster from his Grameen Bank, which pioneered providing small loans to the poor. Clinton plans to meet the 71-year-old Yunus, a family friend, who the government forced out last year, saying he was well past the retirement age of 60.
Yunus' allies said the ouster was political and pointed to Hasina's anger at his 2007 effort to form a political party backed by the powerful army when the country was under a state of emergency and Hasina herself was behind bars.
Bangladesh is also seeking the repatriation of Rashed Chowdhury, who is facing a death sentence for his role in the 1975 assassination of independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina's father, during a military coup. The government says he lives in the United States, and the two nations have no extradition treaty.
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