A two-day nationwide shutdown called by BNP-led opposition alliance began on Wednesday in Bangladesh to protest what it called “mass killings” of marauding members of a radical Islamist outfit in police crackdown during its “Dhaka siege” campaign demanding a tougher blasphemy law.
Thousands of policemen in riot gears and elite anti-crime Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) troops enforced a strict vigil in the capital city Dhaka, where most private cars stayed off the roads and schools were closed.
Witnesses and police said the opposition cadres exploded several crude bombs and vandalised a bus in parts of the city to enforce their strike but no incident of clash was reported in the initial shutdown hours.
In the run-up to the general strike on Tuesday, suspected Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat members set afire a posh train in Chittagong, while vandalised or torched several vehicles and exploded crude bombs in Dhaka.
The call for the general strike by the 18-party alliance, with fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami being a major partner, came a day after a Dhaka court placed senior Hefazat-e-Islam leader Junaid Babunagari on a nine-day police remand following his arrest for masterminding the violence.
The Hefazat-e-Islam or ‘Protectorate of Islam’ has unleashed riots on Dhaka streets since Sunday to mount pressure on the secular Awami League-led government to implement its 13-point demand, including the enactment of a blasphemy law to punish those who insult Islam and its Prophet.
The members of Hefazat, comprising mainly teachers and students of several thousand unregistered madrasas, allegedly backed by Jamaat workers carried out the two days of mayhem in the capital city and Chittagong.
The Islamists also chopped off several hundred street side trees to erect barricades on the road as they fought a pitched battle with security agencies.
Police on Monday sent the conservative outfit’s elderly leader back to his village home at south-eastern Chittagong city under security escorts after the May 5 and 6 violence over their Dhaka siege programme that left 28 people dead.
Riot police and paramilitary troops, however, chased thousands of Hefazat members off the capital using non-lethal sound grenades, rubber bullets and water canons but fresh violence erupted at the outskirts of Dhaka and Chitagong’s Hathazari area, the stronghold of Hefazat.
Officials earlier said the death toll in violence over of Hefazat-e-Islam’s “Dhaka siege programme” stood at 21 which included deaths of an army intelligence official, two paramilitary soldiers and three policemen but the mainstream newspapers tallied the figure to be as high as 28.
The BNP-led alliance called the shutdown to protest what it described as “mass killing” of Hefazat activists during and after their May 5 Dhaka siege programme.
Senior BNP leader M K Anwar, MP, at a news briefing claimed the law-enforcement and paramilitary forces accompanied by ruling Awami League activists killed “several thousand religious leaders and scholars” in an attack at May 5/6 midnight to chase them off.
Mr. Anwar also alleged that a leader of the ruling Awami League belonging to minority Hindu community led the arsons and attack at the Baitul Mukarram Mosque complex.
“M K Anwar is spreading falsehood, which he is habituated to... I challenge him to prove his claim,” Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir told PTI last night, adding the BNP leader would have to take the responsibility for his extremely provocative remarks.
He also criticised BNP chief Khaleda Zia for ordering her party workers to stand by the Hefazat members, saying she proved herself an integral part of a plot of the mayhem by issuing the directive.
Police, meanwhile, said they were looking for Anwar under a court warrant for his arrest spreading rumours and efforts to provoke religious riots while a personal aide of the bureaucrat-turned-politician told newsmen, “I don’t have any idea about my sir’s current whereabouts“.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for an end to the violence, expressing his sadness at the loss of life.
“Ban urges political and religious leaders to engage in constructive dialogue and help defuse the tensions,” said UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky.