DHAKA – Bangladeshi police broke up a protest by tens of thousands of religious hardliners and shut down Islamist television stations Monday as 37 people died in some of the fiercest street violence for decades.
Hundreds more were injured in running battles as riot police broke up the rally near a commercial district in a predawn raid in the capital, Dhaka.
Dozens of demonstrators were arrested, while the leader of the protests was put on a plane to the country’s second city, Chittagong, and the deputy chief was detained in the capital.
Hundreds of bankers and stock market traders had to sleep in their offices as the sound of gunfire echoed around Dhaka’s Motijheel commercial district through the night.
Shops and vehicles were set alight while roads were littered with rocks that protesters had thrown at police, witnesses said.
Police said they used sound grenades, water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse at least 70,000 Islamists who were camped at Motijheel as part of a push for a 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,” said Dhaka police spokesman Masudur Rahman.
The protesters dispersed early Monday, he said.
Mozammel Haq, a police inspector at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, said that 11 bodies were brought to the clinic, including that of a policeman who had been hacked in the head with machetes.
A total of 26 other people were killed in the protests, according to a toll compiled through police and medical officials.
Violence also flared up at Hathazari, a town just outside Chittagong, where local police Chief Liaqot Ali said at least five people were killed after several thousand Islamists clashed with police and border guards.
And at least two people were killed in the southern coastal district of Bagerhat, where police exchanged gunfire with Islamists, police spokesman Shah Alam said.
Two pro-Islamist television stations that broadcast footage of the raid on Motijheel were forced off the air, journalists at the channels said.
The plug was pulled on Diganta Television and Islamic TV as dozens of plainclothes policemen stormed into their offices.
The violence erupted Sunday afternoon after police tried to break a blockade of highways leading into Dhaka.
The protests had been instigated by Allama Shah Ahmad Shafi, the leader of Hefajat-e-Islam, who is said to be around 90 years old.
Police managed to persuade Shafi on Monday to leave his madrassa (religious school) in Dhaka, escorting him to the airport from where he was flown to Chittagong.
In a sign of their desire to avoid inflaming tensions, police insisted he was not arrested but left of his own volition.
Junayed Babu Nagori, the secretary general and second-ranked leader of the group, was arrested in the capital, Dhaka police spokesman Rahman said.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has ruled out a blasphemy law, saying she will not cave in to hardliners who accuse bloggers of insulting the Prophet Mohammed.
Chanting “Atheists must be hanged,” activists from Hefajat-e-Islam marched along at least six highways on Sunday, effectively cutting Dhaka off from the rest of the country.
Police said the number of protesters reached around 200,000 at one point.