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8 May, 2013 02:19

Deadly anti-blasphemy protests in Bangladesh prompt national shutdown

Opposition parties in Bangladesh have called a two day national shutdown, following fierce clashes between security forces and crowds of Islamists that left dozens dead according to official reports, while unofficial sources talk about hundreds of dead.

Since local TV stations which broadcast the violence, Diganta Television and Islamic, were taken off the air, there is scarce information about what is really happening on the ground.

The reports coming from witnesses, social media and blurry mobile footage suggest that over 400 people have been killed and up to 2,500 injured as the government crushed the protest deploying army units to allegedly clean the streets after the massacre. These reports however could not be independently verified.

At least 38 people have been killed according to the AFP and hundreds more injured leading the police to ban all rallies in the Bangladeshi capital.

The strike, effective Wednesday is organized by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its Islamist allies in protest of “mass killing” during the clashes on Sunday and Monday  when police attacked a mass rally in central Dhaka.

“We have called two days of nationwide strike to protest the mass killing of Hifajat-e-Islam workers and supporters on Sunday and Monday,”
BNP spokesman Khandaker Mosharraf told the AFP on Tuesday.

Meanwhile 194 activists of the Hefajat-e-Islam (Protectorate of Islam), a hardline Islamic group behind the violence were indicted by the police. 

There are also reports of the government cutting off electricity and approaching the protesters with weapons.

The government of Bangladesh has rejected the Hefajat-e-Islam demands and a May 5 deadline to introduce a new blasphemy law, reinstate the role of Allah in the constitution, make Islamic education mandatory and ban women from mixing with men.

A fire burns as Islamist protestors clash with Bangladeshi police in Narayanganj, some 20 kms from Dhaka, on May 6, 2013 (AFP Photo / Rehman Asad)

The violence began on Sunday as some 200,000 Islamist supporters marched in Dhaka demanding of the government to introduce a new blasphemy law and execute bloggers whom they accuse of having insulted the Prophet Mohammed.

Chanting "Atheists must be hanged", activists blocked at least six highways cutting Dhaka off from the rest of the country.

On Monday the protests intensified when supporters of the Hifazat-e-Islam organization lined roads with burning tires, setting fire to vehicles and storming a police post, igniting clashes which lasted for more than five hours.

Law enforcement used flash-bang grenades, water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets to quell a crowd of at least 70,000 protesters who responded with force.

"We were forced to act after they unlawfully continued their gathering at Motijheel. They attacked us with bricks, stones, rods and bamboo sticks," Dhaka police spokesman Masudur Rahman told AFP.

Violence also flared up in other parts of the country.

Country’s Information Minister accused the religious institutions of encouraging "terrorist activities" by sending their pupils to the rallies.

“The madrassa superintendents who are encouraging their students to take part in terrorist activities will be tried,” Hasanul Haque Inu said.

Islamist protestors throw bricks and stones towards Bangladeshi police during clashes in Narayanganj, some 20 kms from Dhaka on May 6, 2013 (AFP Photo)

On Monday, UN chief Ban Ki Moon, encouraged the government and the opposition to come into terms.

“The Secretary-General calls on all concerned to stop the violence, to respect the law and to express their views peacefully,”
a statement read.

Overall Bangladesh has been locked in political and secular division since January, after the government created a tribunal to investigate crimes during a 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.  Three leading figures have so far been convicted for their role in during the independence struggle.

The opposition party at the time opposed Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan in the war and now refuses to acknowledge its role in the alleged murder, rape and torture during the conflict.

There is a “proxy war” raging between the opposition and the government and both sides are using “different pretext to wage this war,” independent journalist Haroon Siddiqui explained to RT.

“The government is accused of using the court to get level with the opposition. The opposition is using Islam and blasphemy to get back at the government,” Siddiqui says.

Bangladeshi police walk past burning rickshaws set ablaze by Islamist protestors during clashes with police in Narayanganj, some 20 kms from Dhaka on May 6, 2013 (AFP Photo / Rehman Asad)