CHITTAGONG - Bangladesh police on Saturday opened fire at the activists protesting the conviction for war crimes of one of their leaders, killing three people outside the port city of Chittagong.

The deaths brought the total number killed since a war crimes tribunal delivered its first verdict on January 21 to at least 56, according to police figures.

The number includes 40 who have died in the last three days, since Jamaat-e-Islami party vice president Delwar Hossain Sayedee was sentenced to death, police said. Sayedee was found guilty on Thursday of murder, religious persecution and rape during the 1971 war, triggering violent clashes between rampaging Jamaat supporters and police across the country.

The 73-year-old firebrand preacher was the third person to be convicted by the war crimes tribunal, whose verdicts have been met by outrage from Jamaat actvists. The activists say the process is more about settling scores than delivering justice.

The latest violence came a day after the United States called for calm in the impoverished South Asian nation.

In the new clashes, police said they fired live rounds after hundreds of student activists of Jamaat barricaded a key highway and attacked officers with stones and sticks as they tried to clear the road. “We were forced to open fire. 

Three people were killed in the clashes,” senior Chittagong police official Rabiul Islam told AFP, adding 10 people, including policemen, were wounded.

The war crimes trials of a dozen Jamaat and main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leaders have opened old wounds and divided the nation.

The opposition has accused the government of staging a witchhunt.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh police arrested five students of an elite private university on Saturday on charges of murdering an anti-Islamist blogger whose death triggered nationwide turmoil.

The students allegedly confessed to hacking to death Ahmed Rajib Haider, 35, on February 15 after he helped organise protests against leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami party on trial for war crimes, police said.

“They targeted him because of his allegedly blasphemous writings against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH),” Dhaka police deputy commissioner Masudur Rahman told AFP.

All five of the young men arrested are students of the prestigious North South University, Rahman said,