Hasina and Khaleda had rotated as prime minister of the impoverished south Asian country for over 15 years until October 2006, when Khaleda's second five-year term ended.

The two women have been arrested for alleged corruption, along with dozens of their former ministers and close relatives, but were released recently on bail.

Elections were postponed indefinitely in January last year and emergency law declared the same month as the army backed a caretaker government led by Fakhruddin Ahmed.

'Free' elections

The government has said it will pull out thousands of military personnel deployed across the country as it prepares to end the state of emergency and hold the elections.

The Awami League and Khaleda have both said that they want emergency rule to be lifted immediately.

Abdul Matin, a retired major general and the home affairs adviser to the caretaker government, said on Monday that emergency rule laws would be relaxed to allow parties "full freedom" to campaign and carry out other election activities.

Sirajul Islam, secretary to Iajuddin Ahmed, the country's president, said Ahmed had signed an order withdrawing troops who have been deployed in all districts to aid the civilian emergency administration.

Fakhruddin Ahmed told Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, who visited Dhaka on Sunday, that the military would not interfere in the election and would help authorities to conduct it freely and peacefully.

ATM Shamsul Huda, Bangladesh's chief election commissioner, said in a national broadcast on Sunday that troops would, however, be deployed on the day of the elections to provide security to voters.