Bangladeshi police broke up a protest by tens of thousands of religious hardliners and shut down an Islamist television station yesterday after 28 people were killed in running battles on the streets of Dhaka.
In some of the fiercest violence to rock the capital since independence four decades ago, hundreds more people were reported to have been injured as riot police broke up the rally near a key commercial district in a raid.
Dozens of demonstrators were arrested, while the leader of the protests was put on a plane to the second city, Chittagong.
Hundreds of bankers, insurance officials and stock traders had to spend the night in their offices as the sound of gunfire echoed around the Motijheel Commercial Area through much of the night. Shops were torched and thousands of rocks littered the streets, witnesses said.
Police said they used sound grenades, water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse at least 70,000 Islamists, who were camped at Motijheel as part of a push for a new blasphemy law.
“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 reporters.
The protesters dispersed early yesterday morning, he added.
Mozammel Haq, a police inspector at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, told reporters that 11 bodies were brought to the clinic, including a policeman who had been hacked in the head with machetes.
Eleven other bodies were taken to three other clinics. Hospital officials said hundreds of people were injured.
There was also deadly violence at Kanchpur on the southeastern outskirts of Dhaka. More than 5,000 Islamists clashed with police and border guards, prompting security forces to respond with live rounds, local police chief Abdul Matin told reporters.
At least six people were killed there including three policemen and a border guard, police official Rezaul Karim told reporters.
The private Somoy TV put the toll in Kanchpur at 13.
Meanwhile, a pro-Islamist television channel, which broadcast live footage of the raid on Motijheel, was forced off the air.
Diganta Television’s chief reporter M. Kamruzzaman said that about 25 plain-clothed policemen and an official from the broadcast commission entered their studios without warning.
The violence erupted on Sunday afternoon after police tried to disperse tens of thousands of Islamists who had blocked major highways in Dhaka.
The protests had been instigated by Allama Shah Ahmad Shafi, the leader of Hefajat-e-Islam who is said to be about 90 years old.
Police yesterday managed to persuade Shafi to leave his madrassa in Dhaka, escorting him to the airport from where he was to be flown to Chittagong.
In a likely attempt to avoid inflaming tensions, police insisted he had not been arrested, but was leaving of his own volition.