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Published: Thursday January 16, 2014 MYT 4:05:02 PM
Updated: Thursday January 16, 2014 MYT 4:05:57 PM

Bahrain crown prince meets opposition on ending political deadlock

MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain's crown prince met the leader of the main Shi'ite Muslim opposition group on Wednesday to try to revive reconciliation talks suspended last week in a setback for efforts to stabilise the U.S.-allied Gulf state.

The breakdown in the reconciliation process raised jitters in the Gulf Arab island monarchy, which is in the middle of a regional tussle for influence between Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Muslim powerhouse Saudi Arabia.

The meeting between Crown Prince Salman al-Khalifa and the head of the opposition Al Wefaq group, Sheikh Ali Salman, and leaders of other opposition groups in Bahrain, was the first since 2011, after protests by majority Shi'ites demanding democratic reforms and a bigger say in government.

"The meeting was especially frank and very transparent," Al Wefaq said in a statement signed by five main parties.

Al Wefaq said the meeting was held on the crown prince's initiative.

Crown Prince Salman, who was named first deputy prime minister last year, has pushed for the talks and is seen to be spearheading a more reformist line in the ruling family.

His royal court confirmed the meeting in a statement late on Wednesday, and said the parties had committed to "accelerate dialogue and elevate discussions by including more senior representation from all parties".

A government spokesperson's statement said the meeting was initiated by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. It said future talks would tackle issues concerning the legislative, judicial and executive branches and electoral constituencies.

Prince Salman also met other independent political figures, members of both houses of parliament, according to his Twitter account.

Home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain has been in political limbo since February 2011 when the Sunni-led government quelled mass protests led by Shi'ites.

Against the backdrop of small-scale civil unrest, the opposing sides began talks last year on a new blueprint to run the country of 1.3 million people. But the dialogue unravelled after the opposition boycotted meetings in September in protest at the arrest of one of its senior leaders.

Bahraini Shi'ites complain of discrimination at the hands of the ruling Sunni minority in jobs, housing and education - an accusation the Manama government denies.

Shi'ites are demanding a constitutional monarchy with a government chosen from within an elected parliament.

(Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Elizabeth Piper)

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