Islamist hardliners demanding an anti-blasphemy law in Bangladesh have fought running battles with police in the capital Dhaka and elsewhere, killing at least 20 people.
At least 13 people have died on the outskirts of Dhaka, whilst five were killed in the southeastern city of Chittagong and another two died in Bagerhat in the south.
The violence erupted on Sunday afternoon after around 200,000 Islamist supporters staged a march to demand reforms, but were confronted by police and security forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
“This government does not have faith in Allah. This is an atheist Government, we will not allow them to live in Bangladesh. Muslims are brothers, we must protect Islam,” the protesters said, blocking roads in the area with burning tyres and logs during more than five hours of clashes.
Police said that they had set fire to vehicles including two police cars, and stormed a police post on the outskirts of the capital.
Nine people, including two policemen and a paramilitary soldier, were reported to have been killed in Kanchpur just outside Dhaka. Another seven people were said to have been killed in the capital’s commercial district of Motijheel.
Officials have now banned all rallies and protests in the city until midnight on Monday in an attempt to quell further violence. The ruling Awami League and an alliance of 18 opposition parties led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia had planned rallies in Dhaka Monday.
The protests have been led by a group called Hefajat-e-Islam, which set the government a deadline of 5 May to introduce a new blasphemy law. It also demanded that pledges to Allah are reinstated in the constitution, women are banned from mixing freely with men, and that Islamic education is mandatory.
But the government of Bangladesh, a secular country with a majority Muslim population, has refused to bow to Islamist demands. Critics say that enacting their demands would amount to the “Talibanisation” of the country.
By Monday afternoon, Ahmad Shafi, the chief of Hefajat, had been forced to leave his office in Dhaka, and was reportedly seeking to fly to the city of Chittagong, according to local media.
However, fears have been raised over the government’s handling of the crisis. Diganta Television, a pro-opposition station, said that government officials had come and switched them off the air.
The city has also ground to a halt due to a half-day transport strike being called to protest against the death of a transport worker.
This year, 100 people have been killed in violence related to political protests, mainly pitting security forces against Islamic activists.
“This Government does not have faith in Allah.” Hefajat-e-Islam
Bangladesh has been rocked by protests and counter-protests since January, when a tribunal set up by the government to investigate abuses during a 1971 war of independence from Pakistan sentenced to death in absentia a leader of the main Muslim party, the Jamaat-e-Islami.
Jamaat opposed Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan in the war but denies accusations that some of its leaders committed murder, rape and torture during the conflict.
The Hefajat-e-Islam emerged from the protests over the tribunal, and have been accused of acting as a front for Jamaat supporters.
The clashes come as Bangladesh continues to deal with the aftermath of the devastating collapse of an eight-story factory building in Dhaka last month. The death toll from the collapse has reached 645.
Although the events are not related, protests led by the Islamist group Hefajat-e-Islam have re-emerged for the first time since the disaster, and are a sign that long-standing political grievances are unlikely to subside.