- (Photo: Reuters)
Massive riots in Dhaka and other Bangladesh cities have left at least 36 people dead and 60 injured after tens of thousands of Islamists clashed with police demanding stricter penalties for atheist bloggers.
The demonstrators "were very aggressive, some people were throwing stones and the situation quickly become violent ... the police had no option but to respond," one eyewitness told BBC News.
"Rioters vandalized markets and set fire to bookshops where the Holy Koran is sold. Thousands of Koran and religious books burned. They also attacked the ruling party's political office and national mosque," the man added.
Police were left with no choice but to spray rubber bullets and use stun grenades to disperse the tens of thousands who had gathered in the capital city demanding harsher punishments, mainly the death penalty, for atheists who had insulted Islam.
"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 AFP News agency.
Secular bloggers have been targeted for insulting religion on the Internet in the heavily Muslim country. Many have been arrested, fined and imprisoned for their social network commentary, but radicals demand that those who blaspheme against Islam be put to death.
According to AFP, the protesters chanted slogans like "Allahu Akbar!" ("God is greatest!") and "One point! One demand! Atheists must be hanged."
According to police estimates, the number of protesters reached around 200,000 at one point, but by Monday morning they said many had left. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party apparently said that hundreds of people were killed but there was no proof to support that claim.
The driving force behind the Islamic protests is called Hefazat-e Islam – a coalition seeking to impose a stricter form of Islam on Bangladeshi society, BBC noted. Besides seeking harsher punishments for those found guilty of insulting Islam, the coalition also wants greater segregation between men and women.
The Bangladesh government, which officially operates as a secular democracy, has so far rejected those demands.