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Bangladesh protests intensify as thousands take to streets following clashes

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Activists from Islamist groups set a motorcycle on fire during a clash with the police as they protest against the visit of Indian Prime Minister Modi in Dhaka on March 26, 2021. — AFP/File

Protests in Bangladesh intensified on Saturday as thousands of people took to the country's streets, following clashes between protestors and police that left five dead a day earlier. The demonstrations were staged against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit.

The violence, which began Friday at the main mosque in the capital Dhaka, rocked several key districts in the Muslim-majority nation of 168 million, leaving scores injured.

A spokesman for the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB), which also acts as a reserve paramilitary force for law and order, said it had deployed troops since Friday night, without disclosing the numbers involved.

Authorities also appeared to have restricted access to Facebook after images and reports of Friday's violence were shared on the social media site.

But on Saturday, thousands turned out to protest against police having opened fire and against Modi's visit for independence day celebrations, following calls for nationwide demonstrations from Hefazat-e-Islam.

Several thousand supporters of Hefazat staged protests at Hathazari, a rural town outside the country's second largest city which witnessed the worst violence on Friday when four protesters were shot dead.

Hefazat spokesman Jakaria Noman Foyezi told AFP that around 10,000 students of Hathazari Madrasa, a religious college, were on the road blocking a key highway linking the port city with the country's hill districts.

Ruhul Amin, the government administrator of the town, said Hefazat supporters put up makeshift walls and dug up the road to block traffic, but that there was no violence.

Mohammad Jahangir, a senior Chittagong police officer, said border guards, police and the elite Rapid Action Battalion have been deployed to the town.

In the northern district town of Habiganj, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at some 200 protesters from the main opposition party, police inspector Syedul Mostafa told AFP.

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"They became unruly and pelted rocks at us. We fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse them. We have arrested 10 people for violence," he said.

The Manabjamin newspaper said at least 50 people were injured. Local media also reported clashes at Gazipur, just north of Dhaka.

In the capital itself, hundreds of protesters gathered at the Baitul Mukarram Masjid, the country's biggest mosque.

An AFP correspondent at the scene said the protesters, who chanted slogans against Modi, were Hefazat supporters.

Strike call

The disturbances came as Bangladesh marked 50 years of independence, with rights groups calling for an end to growing authoritarianism including forced disappearances and extra-judicial killings.

"The scenes of violence we witnessed… follow a worryingly familiar pattern of behaviour by the Bangladeshi authorities," rights group Amnesty International said, referring to Friday's violence.

"The right to peaceful protest has come under concerted attack, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, culminating in this type of bloody repression," said Sultan Mohammed Zakaria, Amnesty International's South Asia Researcher.

Hefazat, which was behind the protests on Friday in over a dozen places, has also called for a strike on Sunday.

Hefazat is known for its nationwide network and large-scale protests demanding Bangladesh introduce blasphemy laws.

In 2013 police clashed with tens of thousands of Hefazat supporters in Dhaka, leaving nearly 50 people dead.

As well as Hefazat, a diverse range of Bangladeshi groups — including students, leftists and other groups — have been staging protests against Modi's visit.

They accuse Modi and his Hindu-nationalist government of stoking religious tensions and inciting anti-Muslim violence including in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002 when 1,000 people died.

Modi visited two key Hindu temples in rural districts of southern Bangladesh on Saturday.


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