Bangladesh Islamist activists clash with cops, 37 killed

Police and paramilitary troops overnight dispersed a huge demonstration by 70,000 Islamists in the capital.

Dhaka: The death toll in the raging violence in Bangladesh shot up to 37 as marauding members of a radical Islamic outfit demanding a tougher blasphemy law clashed with police near the capital city, prompting a ban on public rallies and two right-wing TV channels.

The newly-floated Hefazat-e-Islam or `Protectorate of Islam` enforced its "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 its Prophet.

Police and paramilitary troops overnight dispersed a huge demonstration by 70,000 Islamists in the capital.

Police confirmed that two of their men and a soldier of paramilitary Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) were killed in the clashes last night and early today. The security personnel were beaten to death, Dhaka Medical College Hospital sources told The Daily Star.

The situation prompted the Dhaka Metropolitan Police to enforce a ban on public rallies in the city fearing that violence could spread further.

Radical Islamic cleric Ahmed Shafi, who is behind the violent protest and the chief of Hefazat, was today sent back to his hometown Chittagong, a top police official said.

Shafi, in his 80s, is a former student of India`s Darul Uloom Deoband.

Doctors at the major state-run Dhaka Medical College Hospital said 18 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 in Narayanganj district.

The activists spread rumours that the paramilitary and police forces killed several of their comrades overnight.

The Hefajat members also vandalised and torched at least 10 vehicles and set afire a police outpost on the Dhaka-Chittagong highway. Police had to fire several hundreds of gunshots, rubber bullets and teargas shells to disperse the unruly Hefajat members.

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.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh halted broadcast of two right-wing television channels - Diganta Television and Islamic TV - for allegedly provoking violence and spreading "hatred". The two channels are known to be pro-Jamaat-e-Islami, a fundamentalist party facing war crime allegations.

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