By Serajul Quadir
DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh authorities on Saturday allowed opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia to leave her home to attend a meeting, in what her staff said was the first relaxation of a "virtual house arrest" that has lasted more than two weeks.
Supporters say Khaleda had been prevented from leaving her residence before and after a violence-plagued parliamentary election won by the ruling Awami League. The outcome was never in doubt after a boycott by her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
But a spokesman for the BNP told reporters that Khaleda left her home for a meeting with Chinese Ambassador Lee Jung at her office in the city on Saturday.
Khaleda, also head of the BNP-led 18-party opposition alliance, last visited her office on December 27. Security forces were deployed around her residence from December 25.
Osman Farruk, a senior leader of BNP told Reuters that until the government freed other party officials and stopped arrests and harassment "we cannot say it is a positive step".
The government has denied holding the BNP leader under "house arrest". But Mashiur Rahman, an adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said on Saturday Khaleda had been prevented from leaving her residence because she had called on activists to carry out violence to resist the election.
"Since the election has been over now she has every right to go on with healthy political activities," Rahman added.
On Sunday a new cabinet will be sworn in at a ceremony to which Khaleda is also invited, cabinet secretary Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan told reporters.
Eighteen people were killed in separate incidents on election day last Sunday, and voting was halted at more than 400 polling stations. More than 100 people were killed in the run-up to the ballot, mostly in rural areas, and fears of violence kept many voters away.
There was a low turnout, and fewer than half of seats were contested amid heavy security in a poll shunned by international observers as flawed.
The country's $22 billion garment industry, which accounts for 80 percent of exports, has been disrupted by opposition transport blockades. BNP officials said party supporters would maintain the blockade on Sunday.
(Reporting by Serajul Quadir; editing by Andrew Roche)