BEIJING Leaving behind diplomatic drama over a Chinese dissident, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton faced a fresh test on Saturday as she moves on to Bangladesh where the disappearance of an opposition leader has fueled growing tensions.
Clinton will meet Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her opposition rival, Begum Khaleda Zia, following her arrival late on Saturday, and will also pay a call on Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, whose removal from the pioneering micro-lender Grameen Bank has been criticized by Washington.
A senior U.S. State Department official said Clinton's visit would highlight growing cooperation between Washington and Dhaka on everything from counter-terrorism and U.N. peacekeeping to global health and food security.
"Her visit is an opportunity to show Bangladesh's government and 160 million citizens that America is truly Bangladesh's partner," the official said.
But the trip will also likely put fresh focus on the Obama administration's commitment to human rights after the standoff in Beijing over activist Chen Guangcheng, whose flight to the U.S. embassy after escaping house arrest overshadowed Clinton's three days of meetings in Beijing.
China on Friday announced that Chen would be allowed to apply to study in the United States - a move praised by Clinton - but critics have accused U.S. diplomats of mishandling the situation and failing to do enough to shield him from Chinese government persecution.
Clinton will be the first senior U.S. official to visit Bangladesh since 2004, and U.S. officials depict the trip as part of a broad U.S. "pivot" to greater engagement across the Asia-Pacific region.
She will conclude the trip with visits to the Indian cities of Kolkata and New Delhi early next week.
RIGHTS RECORD UNDER SCRUTINY
Clinton arrives in Bangladesh amid mounting turmoil as Khaleda's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Hasina's ruling Awami League party have accused each other of abducting former BNP lawmaker Ilyas Ali.
Five people were killed in clashes between police and protesters during a rash of recent strikes, the worst violence in the past three years of Hasina's rule in one of the poorest countries in Asia.
Pressure group Human Rights Watch said Ali's case was part of an alarming rise in the abduction of political activists and opposition members, and it called on Hasina's government to mount a credible investigation.
"The government has taken no serious steps to ensure such an investigation of these disappearances takes place nor to prevent them in the first place," the group's Asia director, Brad Adams, said in a statement.
Clinton is expected to bring up the harassment and disappearance of political leaders and other human rights violations, and may press for a return to a system where elections were held under a non-party caretaker administration.
Political tension has already led the BNP to stage two countrywide general strikes although it has also promised not to disrupt Clinton's visit.
Analysts fear that more unrest could threaten Bangladesh's ambition to become a middle-income country by 2021, a drive which could benefit from more U.S. help for its economy, additional investment and quota-free access for goods to U.S. markets.
In January, the United States said it would provide close to $1 billion in aid for Bangladesh over the next five years.
Washington wants Dhaka to sign a Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum Agreement and a strategic partnership.
Despite the political storm clouds, Clinton's visit marks continued strong U.S. engagement with Bangladesh, which her husband, former President Bill Clinton, visited in a landmark trip in 2000.
The Clintons have long been friendly with Yunus, an economics professor who set up Grameen Bank decades ago and gained world fame as a banker to the poor, and the United States has criticized his forced dismissal in 2011 because he was beyond the legally mandated retirement age.
Yunus' supporters described the move as a political vendetta by the government against what it saw as a potential future challenger to Hasina.
Clinton will also meet Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of BRAC, another Bangladesh-based non-governmental group whose pioneering anti-poverty programs have expanded as far as Afghanistan, Tanzania and Haiti, the U.S. official said.
"Her meetings with the two development innovators will reaffirm our commitment to the institutions they built, as well as to broader civil society in Bangladesh," the official said.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)