Hefazaat leader forced to leave Dhaka as clashes between anti-government protesters and police continue for second day.
The government in Bangladesh has cracked down on protests, taking a television station off-air and transferring the man at the head of the group that instigated the deadly protests out of Dhaka under police escort.
Allama Shah Ahmad Shafi was taken out of the Hefazaat-e-Islam headquarters on Monday before being put on an aircraft to the country’s second largest city, Chittagong. Police said, however, that Shafi had not been arrested.
Tens of thousands of Hefazaat supporters, demanding an anti-blasphemy law with provision for the death penalty, rallied near a commercial district of Dhaka early on Monday.
Violence soon began spilling beyond the city, with at least two police officers and a border guard reported dead in Narayanganj, about 20km outside Dhaka.
At least 24 people have reportedly been killed in clashes on Monday alone.
Al Jazeera’s special correspondent in Dhaka, who is not being named because of reporting restrictions, said there was now a ban on rallies in the city.
Despite this, both the opposition BNP and the ruling Awami League called for rallies to take place on Monday.
Awami League later cancelled its march.
The opposition has since also called for a nationwide strike for Wednesday and Thursday.
Joint security drive
More than 10,000 forces drawn from police, the elite Rapid Action Battalion and paramilitary Border Guard Bangladesh jointly launched a drive late on Sunday to clear demonstrators from a major thoroughfare in Dhaka.
The security forces fired rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas when they launched the eviction drive.
But while the main street was largely cleared, protesters scattered into side streets and continued to battle police, officials said early on Monday.
The protesters had announced their determination to shut down the main business hub Motijheel until the government accepted their demands.
Meanwhile, Tirana Hassan, an emergencies researcher with Human Rights Watch who has just returned from Bangladesh, said the findings of its investigation into protests since last year were very alarming.
“We’ve documented alarming patterns of protesters being killed by the use of live fire by Bangladeshi forces.” she told Al Jazeera from Brussels.
“There are tens of thousands of people taking to the street, but what we documented was live fire being used -and the fatalities all had bullet entries into the head and chest.
“That’s very worrying because it’s not just that the police are trying to control the crowds, they’re firing live rounds of ammunition in a way that is bound to kill,” she said.
The turmoil comes as the government struggles to deal with outrage over the collapse of a factory building northwest of Dhaka, where the death toll has risen to 610 since the late April accident.
Zain al-Mahmood, the digital editor for the Dhaka Tribune, speaking to Al Jazeera, said that political parties on both sides are taking advantage of the situation for their own gain.
Security forces moved in on the demonstration after what began as a scheduled demonstration exceeded its time limit and turned violent.
Demonstrators attacked the headquarters of the Awami League, set fire to more than 100 shops and at least 50 parked cars, and vandalised many other buildings.
Supporters of Hefazaat carried sticks and had blocked major entry points to the city, sealing off Dhaka.
Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Bangladesh prime minister, has said the existing laws already have sufficient safeguards to address the protesters’ concerns.
On Friday, she said that the government “will not allow any chaos in the name of Islam, a religion of peace”.
The demonstrators demanded mandatory religious education and the end to what they described as an “anti-Islam” policy that calls for gender equality.
Hefazaat, a newly created religious group, is demanding the death penalty for all those it says are defaming Islam.
It said it held the mass protest to push a 13-point list of demands which also include a ban on men and women mixing freely together and the restoration of pledges to Allah in the constitution.