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At least 20 dead, hundreds hurt as Islamists demand religious laws in Bangladesh

At least 20 people have died in violence between police and Islamic hardliners demanding that Bangladesh implement an anti-blasphemy law. NBCNews.com's Richard Lui reports.

DHAKA, Bangladesh -- At least 20 people were killed Sunday and Monday in clashes in Bangladesh between police and hard-line Islamists demanding new laws that critics say would amount to the "Talibanization" of a country that maintains secularism as state policy.

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

AFP - Getty Images

Islamist protesters throw bricks and stones toward Bangladeshi police during clashes outside Dhaka on Monday. Since Sunday, at least 20 people have died as the hard-liners demand laws based on religion.

On Monday, hundreds of protesters, many wearing white Muslim skull caps and throwing stones, regrouped and police again fired tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse them.

Violence spread from the capital, where at least 13 died. Five people were killed in Chittagong and another two in Bagerhat.

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 people killed on Monday, said police official Shah Mohammad Manzur Kader. Four people were killed on Sunday, and hundreds have been injured, hospital officials said.

The protests are led by a group called Hefajat-e-Islam, which set a May 5 deadline for the government 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.

Munir Uz Zaman / AFP - Getty Images

Islamist protesters gather Sunday on a highway at an entry point to the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, as they try to enforce a siege in demand of religious laws. The country has a secular government.

The government of the overwhelmingly 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.

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