Bangladesh police clash with Islamist protesters

By Farid Hossain

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, July 10 2011 8:55 a.m. MDT

Islamic activists armed with sticks chase anti-strike supporters during a 30-hour nationwide strike at Kachpur, outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, Sunday, July 10, 2011. Riot police in Bangladesh fired tear gas shells to disperse thousands of Islamist activists trying to enforce an anti-government general strike, authorities said. The strike has been called by a coalition of 12 Islamic parties to protest removal of a clause from the country's constitution that expressed "absolute faith and trust in Allah."

Pavel Rahman, Associated Press

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Riot police in Bangladesh fired tear gas in clashes Sunday with thousands of stone-throwing Islamist activists protesting constitutional changes that proclaimed the country a secular state. At least 70 people were injured, authorities said.

The violence erupted in three towns near Dhaka after police tried to stop the protesters from blocking roads and smashing vehicles that were defying a general strike, police official Nazrul Alam said. He said at least 10 policemen were among the injured.

Alam said the protesters smashed more than a dozen vehicles for refusing to join the strike.

Private television stations ATN News and Boishakhi TV showed protesters, many of them wearing Islamic prayer caps, throwing stones at police. Police responded with batons and tear gas.

Separately, police arrested at least 75 people on charges of disrupting the peace in Dhaka and in the southeastern city of Chittagong, the Daily Star newspaper said.

The 30-hour nationwide strike was called by a coalition of 12 Islamic parties to protest the removal of a clause from the preamble of country's constitution that expressed "absolute faith and trust in Allah." The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party also backed the protest.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's coalition government recently passed a package of constitutional amendments in which it attempted to appease both Islamists and liberals in the Muslim-majority country. The changes retained Islam as the state religion, but added secularism as a state principle.

The Islamist parties hold no seats in Parliament, but draw support from the country's hundreds of Islamic schools.

During Sunday's strike, several thousand protesters, many of them armed with sticks and stones, tried to block a road in Kanchpur, 10 miles (16 kilometers) outside Dhaka. Police used batons and tear gas to break up the protesters.

Similar clashes occurred in Keraniganj and Fatullah, two other small towns on the southern outskirts of the capital, police said.

Bangladesh has been hit by a series of general strikes since Parliament passed the amendments, which also removed a 15-year-old requirement that national elections be overseen by a nonpartisan caretaker government.

Last week, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party enforced a 48-hour shutdown to protest that change, which they say will allow Hasina's government to rig the next elections, due in 2014. Hasina denies the allegation.

A general strike is a common opposition tactic to embarrass the government in Bangladesh. Such strikes usually turn violent in the South Asian nation, a parliamentary democracy which has a history of two successful and 19 failed military coups since 1971, when the country won independence from Pakistan.

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