06 May, 2013

Bangladeshi capital wears an eerie calm a day after Islamists battle police

Bangladeshi capital wears an eerie calm a day after Islamists battle police
By Saeed Ahmed and Farid Ahmed, CNN
May 6, 2013 -- Updated 0903 GMT (1703 HKT)
Bangladeshi property tycoon Sohel Rana, center, is escorted to the High Court in Dhaka wearing police-issued body armor as protests calling for his prosecution continue, Tuesday, April 30. Nearly 400 people died when the Rana Plaza building collapsed Wednesday, April 24. Officials say it's unlikely any more survivors will be found in the rubble.

National news agency BSS puts the count at 14 dead
Among them are three police officers, a paramilitary trooper and a 12-year-old boy
Police declare no rallies can take place all day Monday in Dhaka
In Narayanganj, a city near the capital, Islamists torch vehicles and fight police

Dhaka, Bangladesh (CNN) -- On any given Monday, Motijheel -- the commercial center of Dhaka -- is a bustling, chaotic mess of rickshaws and cars jockeying for space in overcrowded streets with an equally determined mass of pushing, shoving pedestrians.

This Monday was different.

Motijheel resembled a battleground, desolate and destroyed.

A day earlier, it was.

Throughout the day and late into the night Sunday, police and paramilitary troops battled with Islamists who laid siege to the area. Half a million of them, by many accounts.
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It ended when security forces, 10,000-strong, moved into the area early Monday morning to disperse the protesters.

Exactly how many died in that final confrontation might never be known.

The national news agency, Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS), put the count at 14 dead and more than and more than 75 wounded.

Among them were three police officers, a paramilitary trooper and a 12-year-old boy.

Human rights activists say the final count will be much higher -- one that the government may be loathe to share.

Photographs that appeared on online blogs and websites show bodies lying on stairwells or cowered in building corners -- bullet wounds to the head or back, or a pool of blood beside them.

To avoid a repeat of Sunday's violence, police declared no rallies and gatherings can take place all day Monday in Dhaka.

So protesters focused their efforts elsewhere.

In Narayanganj, a city near the capital, Islamists torched vehicles and fought pitched battles with police.

How it began

The Islamists are members of the ultra-conservative Hefazat-e-Islami (Protectors of Islam).

They gathered Sunday in numbers that boggled the mind.

Photos taken from balconies and rooftops showed a sea of bodies dressed in white panjabis and kufis -- both traditional Muslim attire in Bangladesh -- cramming the streets of Motijheel to the hilt.

They demanded that the government enact laws that put to death anyone who blasphemed Islam.

They called for mandatory Islamic education for all in this secular Muslim nation.

They wanted a ban on statues, and the words "absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah" reinstated in the constitution.

They declared that men and women should not be allowed to mix freely in this country of 150 million.

And they vowed they would not leave until their demands -- 13 in all -- were met.

The ensuing confrontation was violent. And bloody.

Country's direction at stake

What is happening in Bangladesh is a push and pull between two forces to determine the future direction of the country.

In February, thousands and thousands of youths held a month-long sit-in in another part of the capital, Shahbag, demanding the death penalty for those who took part in war crimes during Bangladesh's bloody battle for independence from Pakistan.

The rallies, led by youths and fueled by social media, also tried to achieve something else: a ban on extreme fundamentalist parties.

But Bangladesh is also the fourth most populous Muslim country in the world.

And the radical elements of the religion were not going to sit by idly as those rallies grew.

The Islamists let their presence known with larger and larger rallies and strikes, first in cities outside Dhaka and then in the capital city.

Each time they came out, police officers with batons followed.

Clashes ensued. Properties were destroyed. Lives were lost.

The Islamists' tactic has been to turn the criticism on its head: By criticizing them, they seemed to say, you criticize Islam.

They called the Shahbag participants "anti-Islamic atheists" who deserve death for defaming the religion but who are protected by the government.

And so, when the Hefazat-e-Islami protesters gathered Sunday, that was one of their main demands: put to death these "atheists."

Battles for hours

Clashes broke out when Hefazat activists tried to break a police cordon.

The street battles went on for hours, with police firing rubber bullets and tear gas and the Islamists hurling crude explosives and chunks of brick.

Syed Ashraful Islam, secretary-general of the ruling Awami League and a government minister, said demonstrators set fire to the Communist Party of Bangladesh office and ransacked several other business establishments in central Dhaka.

Shahriar Shahid, the managing editor of BSS, said the service had to suspend operations for the day after Hefazat activists set a fire at the entrance of its office.

Reminders everywhere

Monday morning, the reminders of the violence were everywhere.

Smoke smoldered from rubbish heaps. Fires burned inside ransacked stores. Bricks and rocks littered the streets.

Bulldozers pushed the debris to the side.

Bangladesh is still reeling from the aftermath of a catastrophic building collapse last month where the death toll continues to mount: more than 650 by Monday.

And now this.

But Bangladeshis are resilient people.

By Monday afternoon, the rickshaws and the cars were back on the streets in Motijheel. So were the street peddlers and the pedestrians.

The cars blared their horns, the rickshaws squeezed into every available space. The pedestrians flung profanities.

Life, it appeared, was slowly returning to normal.

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