DHAKA, Bangladesh – Violence erupted across Bangladesh on Monday as Islamist fundamentalists demanding passage of an anti-blasphemy law clashed with security forces, leaving a destructive trail of property damage and at least 22 people dead after a second day of unrest.
The skirmishes began on Sunday when thousands of Islamic activists staged a march on Dhaka, the capital, followed by speeches and a mass demonstration. Authorities say several hundred shops were vandalized, and local television channels showed fires in the central part of the city. Later, when protesters refused to leave, security officers unleashed tear gas and fired rubber bullets to drive them out of the capital.
The confrontations escalated on Monday, as a major clash occurred about 15 miles outside the capital in the district of Narayanganj, where photographs show stick-wielding protesters fighting with police in riot gear. Bangladeshi media reported that three security officers were beaten to death while a dozen other people were killed, including protesters shot by police. Traffic was halted for at least eight hours on one of the country's most important highways, connecting Dhaka with the southern port of Chittagong.
"They put trees and bricks and many other things on the road," said S.M. Ashrafuzzaman, a police official in Narayanganj. "When police went to clear the road, they attacked police."
For nearly two weeks, Bangladesh's feuding political parties and Islamic movements have essentially called a truce as the country reeled from the deadly collapse of the Rana Plaza building, which has left 661 people dead, a figure expected to rise as work crews continue to clear the wreckage. Five clothing factories operated inside the building and the disaster has focused global attention on unsafe conditions in the garment industry.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had called on Islamic hard-liners to postpone their planned march – described as Siege Dhaka by supporters on social media – but they refused. The march was organized by Hefajat-e-Islam, a group of Islamic hard-liners who have called for Bangladesh's constitution to be drastically amended with a 13-point program that would banned intermingling between men and women and punish by execution Bangladeshi bloggers accused of blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad.
Later on Monday, authorities detained Hefajat Secretary General Junaid Babunagari in Dhaka for interrogation, though the group's spiritual leader, Allama Shah Ahmad Shafi, was allowed to leave the capital for Chittagong. Meanwhile, supporters of the Islamic movement accused security officers of staging an unjustified assault – claiming that numerous protesters had been killed – and blamed the government for persecuting members of their movement.
Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim nation with a constitution that defines the country as a secular democratic republic. Ministers in the governing Awami League have criticized the Islamic hard-liners, accusing them of conspiring with opposition political parties in an attempt to destabilize the government. Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir told reporters on Monday that Hefajat would be prohibited from staging future demonstrations.
"If necessary," he said, according to The Daily Star, an English-language newspaper, "the Hefajat men won't be allowed to come out of their houses."
Hefajat issued a statement calling for a day of prayer to honor the victims of the violence, but there was no indication the group was softening its demands.
By Monday afternoon, authorities say the violence had spread south to Hathazari, a suburb of Chittagong that is home to a madrassa affiliated with Hefajat. Protesters blockaded roads in protest of police actions in Dhaka. At least four people would end up dead, including an off-duty army officer, the police said.
"They started throwing brick chips, bottles and some other hard substances," said A.K.M. Liaquat Ali, officer-in-charge of the Hathazari police station. "They torched a vehicle and also set fire to some local shops."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.