DHAKA: At least 28 people have been killed in pitched battles between Bangladeshi police and thousands of hardline Islamists in the capital Dhaka.
In some of the fiercest violence to rock the capital since independence four decades ago, hundreds more people were reported to have been injured as riot police broke up a mass rally.
Police used a water cannon, sound grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse at least 70,000 Islamists who were camped at a key commercial district in a push for a new blasphemy law.
“We were forced to act after they unlawfully continued their gathering at Motijheel,” Dhaka police spokesman Masudur Rahman said.
“They attacked us with bricks, stones, rods and bamboo sticks.”
Hundreds of bankers, insurance officials and stock traders had to sleep in their offices as the sound of gunfire echoed around the Motijheel Commercial Area through much of the night.
Witnesses say shops were torched while trees were been torn down and thousands of rocks littered the ground.
Police say the protesters have now dispersed.
Police inspector Mozammel Haq, at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, says 11 bodies were taken to the clinic.
He says the bodies include several who had been hit by bullets, and a policeman who had been hacked in the head by protesters with machetes.
Eleven other bodies were taken to three other clinics, while hospital officials said hundreds of people were injured.
The violence erupted on Sunday afternoon and continued until the early hours of Monday morning.
It came after hundreds of thousands of Islamists demanding a new blasphemy law blocked highways and fought running battles with police on Sunday, leaving 10 people dead and hundreds injured in the Bangladeshi capital.
Chanting “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is greatest!”) and “One point, One demand: Atheists must be hanged”, activists from the hardline Hefajat-e-Islam marched along at least six highways, blocking transport between Dhaka and other cities.
Police say about 200,000 people marched to central Dhaka, where fierce clashes erupted between thousands of rock-throwing protesters and security officials, with police beating back demonstrators with batons.
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina has ruled out a new law, insisting she will not cave into the demands of hardliners who have been infuriated by bloggers whom they accuse of insulting the Prophet Mohammed.