Clashes as Bangladesh hit by strike over war trials

DHAKA (AFP) - Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters in Bangladesh on Thursday as a nationwide strike called to protest war crimes trials brought much of the country to a halt.

The Jamaat-e-Islami party called the strike to protest the prosecution of its main leaders for atrocities they are alleged to have committed during the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan.

Clashes occurred in the capital Dhaka, where the protesters torched and damaged vehicles, and several other towns across the country. Many schools and private businesses were shut and inter-city motorways deserted.

A police constable suffered a heart attack during a clash with at least 150 stone-throwing Jamaat supporters in the western town of Monirumpur, district police chief Joydev Bhadra told AFP.

"He was declared dead after we brought him to a hospital. Doctors think the clashes could have contributed to his cardiac arrest," he said, adding police fired rubber bullets to disperse the protesters.

At Sanarpar, outside Dhaka, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the strikers who set ablaze a lorry, local police chief Abdul Matin told AFP. Four protesters were detained there, he added.

The normally congested streets of Dhaka were largely empty. Security was tight as more than 10,000 policemen patrolled the roads and key flashpoints, police said.

"We've adequate security to prevent violence," said Dhaka police spokesman Masudur Rahman. Local media reported explosions of several small hand-made bombs and the torching of three vehicles in Dhaka.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) backed the strike, the seventh in the past two months, as two of its senior officials are also being tried for war crime charges.

Both Jamaat and the BNP called the charges false and the trials politically motivated. International rights groups have expressed concern over the fairness of the proceedings and shortcomings of the laws.

Last week a former television preacher was sentenced to death in absentia in the first ruling by the much-criticised war crimes tribunal. Verdicts against two Jamaat leaders are expected in early February.

The government says three million people were killed in the war. Many including some of the country's top professors, doctors and journalists were murdered by pro-Pakistan collaborators who allegedly included Jamaat members.

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