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Islamists protesters clash with Bangladesh police, seven dead

By Ruma Paul

DHAKA (Reuters) - At least seven people were killed on Monday in clashes in Bangladesh between police and hardline Islamists demanding reforms that critics say would amount to the "Talibanisation" of a country that maintains secularism as state policy.

Clashes began on Sunday after about 200,000 Islamist supporters marched in Dhaka to press their demands and were met by lines of police firing teargas and rubber bullets.

On Monday, hundreds of protesters, many wearing white Muslim skull caps and throwing stones, re-grouped and police again fired teargas, rubber bullets and water cannon to disperse them.

Protesters set fire to vehicles, including two police cars, and stormed a police post on the outskirts of the capital, police said.

Two policemen and a member of a paramilitary force were among the seven people killed, said police official Shah Mohammad Manzur Kader. Four people were killed on Sunday and hundreds of people have been injured, hospital officials said.

The protests are led by a group called Hefajat-e-Islam, which set the government a May 5 deadline to introduce a new blasphemy law, reinstate pledges to Allah in the constitution, ban women from mixing freely with men and make Islamic education mandatory.

The government of the overwhelming Muslim country has rejected the demands.

The clash of ideologies could plunge Bangladesh into a cycle of violence as the two main political parties, locked in decades of mutual distrust, exploit the tension between secularists and Islamists ahead of elections that are due by next January.

Bangladesh has been rocked by protests and counter-protests since January, when a tribunal set up by the government to investigate abuses during a 1971 war of independence from Pakistan sentenced to death in absentia a leader of the main Muslim party, the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Jamaat opposed Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan in the war but denies accusations that some of its leaders committed murder, rape and torture during the conflict.

The Hefajat-e-Islam emerged from the protests over the tribunal.

More than 100 people have been killed in the clashes this year, most of them Islamist party activists and members of the security forces.

The troubles have cast a shadow over economic prospects at a time that industrial accidents, such as the April 24 collapse of a garment factory complex with the death of more than 600 people, are raising questions about investing and buying cheap products from the country.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

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