14 killed in Bangladesh violence over blasphemy law
At least 14 people have been killed and scores injured in Bangladesh as Islamists, demanding a tougher blasphemy law, fought pitched battles with the police today in the capital, prompting a ban on public rallies.
The newly-floated Hefazat-e-Islam or "Protectorate of Islam" enforced their "Dhaka siege" programme yesterday to mount pressure on the secular Awami League-led government to implement their 13-point demand, including the enactment of a blasphemy law to punish those who insult Islam and the Prophet.
Bangladesh's police and paramilitary troops overnight dispersed a huge demonstration by thousands of Islamists in the capital.
Police confirmed that three of their men and a soldier of paramilitary Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) were killed in the clashes last night and early today.
The situation prompted the Dhaka Metropolitan Police to enforce a ban on public rallies in the city fearing that violence could spread further.
Doctors at the major state-run Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) said 14 bodies were kept at their morgue but unconfirmed reports quoted the toll to be as high as 22, saying several of them were taken to private facilities.
A police spokesman said they were trying to gather information about the toll.
The police said the three law enforcers were killed and over 50 people injured when the Hefazat activists launched an attack mobilising students of unregistered madarsas at the Kanchpur area.
The activists spread rumours that the paramilitary and police forces killed several of their comrades overnight.
The attack came after the BGB and police raided a madarasa at Sanarpara in Siddhirganj after morning prayers suspecting that the radical activists prepared to lay a siege on the Dhaka-Chittagong highway.
The police's ban on public meetings came just ahead of the ruling Awami League and main opposition BNP's simultaneous rallies in the capital.
Hefazat-e-Islam enforced their "Dhaka siege" programme blocking the entry points of the city and staged a grand rally at Shapla Chattar area of Motijheel which they wanted to linger for indefinite period defying a government warning yesterday.
But the combined action of the BGB, riot police and elite anti-crime Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) evicted the radical activists using sound grenades, tear gas canisters, blank gunshots and police's armoured personnel carriers (APCs).
Witnesses said the activists of the newly floated radical group, mostly manned by students of unregistered madarsas, ran towards the Sayedabad and Jatrabari areas, the south-western gateway to the capital.
A senior RAB official said they found three bodies on the makeshift stage of the Hefazat and another on a nearby rickshaw van, all draped in white clothes.
"The Motijheel is now under our control...Hefazat-e-Islami has quit the area," a police spokesman told reporters after a combined force of some 10,000 riot police, elite anti-crime Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and paramilitary Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) troops carried out the operation last night.
Hefazat, earlier defied a government warning asking them to leave the capital immediately.
"Quit Dhaka immediately after your so-called rally or face stern punitive action," local government minister and Awami League general secretary Syed Ashraful Islam said late yesterday.
Also, main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chief Begum Khaleda Zia, who is leading an anti-government campaign, issued a statement asking party leaders and activists to stand by the Hefazat in their mission to "protect Islam".
The government alleged that the BNP's crucial ally fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami was behind yesterday's violence.
Violence griped the capital yesterday with radical activists clashing with police and turning the Purana Paltan area into a virtual battlefield.
Chanting "Allahu Akbar!" ("God is great!") and "One point, One demand: Atheists must be hanged", activists from the radical Hefajat-e-Islam marched along at least six highways, blocking transport between Dhaka and other cities.
The Islamists also set ablaze at least 30 buses and over 100 shops including jewelers at the Baitul Mokarram National Mosque complex in the area.
Witnesses said they also set fire to some government buildings, including House Building Finance Corporation, some bank offices at Paltan and launched attacks on the central Awami League office and the Communist Party (CPB) office hurling crude bombs.