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DHAKA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was "betting on Bangladesh" on Saturday as she began a visit to the impoverished South Asian country, gripped by growing tensions over the disappearance of an opposition leader.
Clinton flew to Dhaka after three days of diplomatic drama in Beijing as China and the United States tussled over the fate of a blind human rights activist holed up at the U.S. embassy.
While U.S. officials hope to highlight Washington's growing security and economic partnership with Bangladesh during Clinton's 24-hour visit, human rights are also sharply in focus as the government faces its worst period of political tension in years.
"We are betting on Bangladesh," Clinton told reporters ahead of meetings with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her opposition rival, Begum Khaleda Zia.
"That's why it's very important to us to continue to urge the hard decisions that are necessary for the rule of law, for transparency," Clinton said. "We don't want to see any faltering or flagging. We want to see democracy flourish in Bangladesh."
Clinton is 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 on Sunday and New Delhi early next week.
Clinton stressed her personal connections to Bangladesh, which she visited in 1995 and which her husband, former President Bill Clinton, visited in 2000 on a landmark first trip by a U.S. president.
And she called on both Khaleda's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Hasina's ruling Awami League to ratchet down tensions that have surged as each party have accused the other of abducting former BNP lawmaker Ilyas Ali.
"Everybody (should) take seriously any disappearance, any violence against activists, any oppression against civil society, any intimidation of the press. That is just what is required in the 21st century if democracy is sustainable," she said.
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 opposition said it would hold off on protests so as not to disrupt Clinton's visit. A group of about 100 students from progressive student organizations protested against Clinton's visit at Dhaka University on Saturday.
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 and Washington wants Dhaka to sign a Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum Agreement and a strategic partnership.
Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said Dhaka was stressing hopes for broader economic cooperation, including duty and quota free access to U.S. markets and extension of its generalized system of preferences facilities.
On Sunday, Clinton is due to meet Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, the economics professor who set up microlending pioneer Grameen Bank decades ago and gained world fame as a banker to the poor.
Clinton has been a staunch defender of Yunus, who was forced to step down in 2011 because he was beyond the legally mandated retirement age in what his supporters described as a political vendetta by the government against a potential future challenger to Hasina.
Clinton pledged her full backing for Grameen -- now regarded somewhat warily by the Bangladesh government -- and called for an expeditious and transparent process to select Yunus' successor.
"I look forward to Grameen bank carrying on its good work for a long time to come," Clinton said.
additional reporting by Anis Ahmed; Editing by Robert Birsel