Bahrain has asked pro-democracy opposition parties to nominate delegates for talks to try to break nearly two years of political deadlock in the Gulf Arab state.
The island state, base for the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, has been in turmoil since protests erupted in 2011 led by majority Shi'ite Muslims demanding an end to the Sunni-led monarchy's political domination and full powers for parliament.
Thirty-five people died during the unrest and two months of martial law that followed, but the opposition puts that number at more than 80. The government rejects the figures and has accused opposition groups of being linked to Shi'ite power Iran.
Khalil al-Marzouq, a leader of the main opposition bloc Wefaq, said the Justice Ministry's director general had contacted him and asked the opposition to nominate six representatives for the talks.
"He was also getting in touch with other groups from the loyalist side," Marzouq told Reuters. "They have started taking steps, but they are still very slow steps, and no one still has any picture of what is going to happen."
Though martial law has been lifted and Bahrain has introduced some reforms, the opposition sees the measures as cosmetic and smaller scale protests have continued.
The call for dialogue was welcomed by the EU.
"The EU stands ready to support the process as and when wished by the Bahraini side," said Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
The Justice Ministry said the first meetings would try to agree on an agenda for the talks, the state's BNA news agency said, without giving further details.
Information Minister Samira Rajab had earlier welcomed the opposition's response to the invitation, made on Monday by the Justice Ministry on behalf of King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, and said the government would ask all parties to name delegates to the talks, which she said could start soon.
"All the steps will start. I think the time frame will go fast, as long as all the parties are willing to go through positive, very serious dialogue," she said.
She said the government would moderate the event, help set the agenda and implement any recommendations.
"As far as I understand, the government won't be represented there. They will be the moderators, the regulator," she said without elaborating.
Opposition groups say previous promises of constructive dialogue by the authorities have come to nothing and accuse the government of continuing to crush dissent.
But six opposition groups said after a meeting in Bahrain on Tuesday they welcomed the king's call for talks and said the two sides need to jointly work on implementing any accord within an agreed time frame and with proper guarantees.
"We have to learn from the previous (round) of dialogue in order to ensure we do not fail this time," Marzouq said.
Talks in July 2011 ended inconclusively after Wefaq withdrew, complaining it had not been allowed enough representation at the negotiations, and there were too many handpicked participants to reach a meaningful consensus.
Shi'ite Muslims complain of discrimination in the electoral system, jobs, housing, education and government departments.
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