Five shot dead in violent Bangladesh demos against Modi visit
Five supporters of a hardline Islamist group were shot dead in Bangladesh on Friday during violent demonstrations across the country against a visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, officials said.
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.
Police said four bodies of members of Hefazat-e-Islam, a hardline Islamist group, were brought to Chittagong Medical College Hospital after violence erupted at Hathazari, a rural town where the group's main leaders are based.
"We got four bodies here. They are all hit with bullets. Three of them are madrasa students and another a tailor," Alauddin Talukder, a police inspector at the hospital, told AFP.
He said at least four other demonstrators were critically injured but did not say who opened fire.
Ruhul Amin, the government administrator of Hathazari town, said up to 1,500 supporters of Hefazat attacked a police station chanting anti-Modi slogans.
"They attacked us all of a sudden," he said, without confirming whether any protesters were killed.
Violence also spread at Jatrabari, a neighbourhood in the capital Dhaka, and in the eastern border district of Brahmanbaria with thousands of madrasa students demonstrating in the two places.
At Brahmanbaria one person was killed during clashes with police, a police spokesman told AFP, adding officers "opened live fire" and lobbed tear gas at Islamists protesting Modi's visit for the independence day celebrations.
Hefazat spokesman Jakaria Noman Foyezi told AFP the deceased was a supporter of the group. He added some 100,000 supporters of the group staged protests in at least 22 cities and towns across the country.
Police also fired tear gas and rubber bullets at over 4,000 madrasa students at Jatrabari, where the protesters barricaded a key highway linking Dhaka with the southeastern region, police said.
"They went unruly and even threw a Molotov cocktail bomb at police," Dhaka Metropolitan Police deputy commissioner Shah Iftekhar told AFP.
Hathazari is home to one of Bangladesh's largest madrasas and is the headquarters of the Hefazat, which was formed in 2010 and is believed to be the country's largest hardline Islamist outfit.
Another Hefazat spokesman Mir Idris accused police of "opening fire" at their "peaceful" supporters at Hathazari.
"There were some 5,000 protesters. They were all Hefazat supporters and they were mostly madrasa students. They were protesting Modi's visit and police actions against demonstrators in Dhaka," he said.
He was referring to other smaller clashes at the compound of the country's largest mosque in central Dhaka after Friday prayers when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at brick-throwing Islamist supporters.
At least nine of the protesters there were injured, he said.
Hefazat is known for its nationwide network and large-scale protests demanding blasphemy laws in Bangladesh. In 2013 police clashed with tens of thousands of Hefazat supporters in Dhaka, leaving nearly 50 people dead.
Hefazat aside, a diverse range of Bangladeshi groups -- including students, leftist and other Islamist outfits -- have been staging protests over the last few days 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 was Gujarat's chief minister at the time.
On Thursday more than 40 people were injured, including four police officers, during a student demonstration. At least 33 people were detained for violence.
Clashes also occurred at the elite state-run Dhaka University Thursday evening, when pro-government student activists allegedly beat dozens of anti-Modi student protesters.
The former East Pakistan emerged as a new nation in 1971 after a brutal war involving India, which Bangladesh says killed as many as three million and displaced many more.
For decades the nation was ravaged by famines, coups and natural disasters but in recent years under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina it has boomed economically with GDP per head more than quadrupling since 2000, although the human rights situation has deteriorated sharply, activists say.