DHAKA - Bangladesh was rocked by a new wave of deadly violence Friday as Islamist supporters went on the rampage to vent their fury at the execution of one of their leaders for war crimes.
Abdul Quader Molla became the first person to be hanged for his role in the country's bloody 1971 war when he was sent to the gallows at a prison in the capital Dhaka late Thursday. The hanging took place at 10:01 pm (1601 GMT) after the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal for a final review of the death sentence handed down to Molla, who was a senior figure in the Jamaat-e-Islami party.
Fears that the execution could spark further unrest, in a country where political violence is intensifying in the build-up to deeply divisive elections, were soon realised as the Islamists rioted in street battles in towns and cities.
Three protesters were killed and two activists from the ruling Awami League were hacked to death Friday, police officials told AFP, with an Islamist becoming the latest fatality after he was shot dead during clashes with ruling party activists in the southern town of Sonaimuri. Rampaging Jamaat activists firebombed train stations, set fire to businesses and houses belonging to ruling party supporters and blockaded key highways, they said.
Violence also erupted near the country's largest mosque in Dhaka after Friday prayers as Jamaat activists detonated crude bombs and torched at least a dozen cars and vehicles, AFP correspondents at the scene said. Police fired rubber bullets to disperse the crowds, critically injuring a 12-year-old child, footage aired by private station Channel 24 showed.
Activists also tried to burn down the coastal village home of one of the war crimes trial judges, local police chief Anisur Rahman told AFP.
"They tried to torch the house with kerosene. We fired rubber bullets to disperse them. No one was injured," he said.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Bangladesh was passing through a "very sensitive moment", urging all parties to resolve their differences peacefully.
"We've long urged the authorities to assure that trials are free, transparent and in accord with international standards, but we've also urged all parties and their supporters to express their views peacefully and again, to refrain from violence," she said.
Authorities went ahead with the execution despite widespread international appeals against the move, including from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Neighbouring India - which was an ally of the then East Pakistan in the war - did not join in the condemnation, saying the execution was the "outcome of internal judicial processes and laws of Bangladesh".
The Bangladeshi government, which has also rebuffed international pressure to delay the elections scheduled for next month, was unrepentant about the decision to carry out the execution of 65-year-old Molla.
Shortly after the execution, Molla's body was driven by police escort to his home village in central Faridpur district, where he was buried beside his parents' graves in a pre-dawn service attended by around 300 people, local police told AFP.
Jamaat has called the execution a "political murder" and warned of exacting revenge for "every drop" of Molla's blood.
But in a sign of the sharp divide in Bangladesh, thousands of secular protesters erupted in celebration as news of the execution came.
They had been camping at Shahbagh Square in Dhaka since Tuesday night, shouting slogans including: "Hang Quader Molla, hang war criminals".
Molla was one of five Islamists and other politicians sentenced to death by the domestic court known as the International Crimes Tribunal, which the opposition says is aimed at eradicating its leaders.
The sentences have triggered riots and plunged the country into its worst violence. Some 235 people have now been killed in street protests since January, when the verdicts were first handed down.