March 3 (Bloomberg) -- Clashes between backers of Bangladesh’s largest Islamic party and security forces left at least 16 people dead on the first day of a strike to protest a death sentence against one of its leaders.
Today’s deaths raise to at least 51 the number of people killed in unrest the past four days, according to news reports. Violence erupted after Jamaat-e-Islami leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee, 73, was sentenced to death for crimes committed more than four decades ago during the country’s war of independence.
Jamaat-e-Islami activists rioted in northern Bangladesh, attacking police outposts and vandalizing government buildings in violence that also left two children dead, according to RTV television and the Daily Star newspaper. The government denied reports that troops were being deployed to quell disturbances.
Sayedee was found guilty at a war crimes tribunal investigating atrocities committed during the 1971 war.
The clashes have exposed the deep divisions in Bangladesh over the war.
“Bangladesh is going through an important phase, which may be painful for the time being,” said Shantanu Majumder, a political science teacher at Dhaka University. “It’s a battle between liberal democracy and religious extremism.”
The mainly secularist, middle-class protesters have been occupying a square in Bangladesh’s capital since Feb. 5 demanding harsher penalties for those found guilty by the tribunal. Supporters of Islamic parties say the trials are politically motivated.
As police and paramilitary forces continued to tighten security across the country, Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir denied that the army had entered some areas.
Jamaat, a key ally of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, called a three-day nationwide strike starting today to protest the death sentence and the killings of its supporters in clashes that began Feb. 28.
In Dhaka, banks and other financial institutions were open. Buses and trains were operating normally in the capital.
The violence coincided with the visit of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee to Bangladesh on his first trip overseas since taking office in July.
At the end of British colonial rule in 1947, East and West Pakistan were separated by 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) of Indian territory. Pakistani troops in 1971 attempted to quell a nationalist uprising in the east. The war ended nine months later with the creation of Bangladesh after Indian forces helped defeat Pakistan’s army.
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