Bangladesh police fire tear gas in clashes with Islamists

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Bangladesh police Tuesday fired rubber bullets and tear gas at supporters of the country's largest Islamist party as they protested against a ban preventing it from contesting next year's general elections.

Several thousand backers of the Jamaat-e-Islami party took to the streets in two areas of Meherpur, a district 200 kilometres (124 miles) west of Dhaka, police said.

"In both of the places, they attacked us with stones and sticks leaving our 19 officers injured," police officer Masudur Rahman told AFP. "In retaliation we fired rubber bullets and tear gas."

Police said the clashes erupted when officers tried to clear roads blocked by Jamaat activists, who were attempting to enforce the first day of a 48-hour strike called by the party.

Jamaat ordered the strike after the High Court ruled last month that the party's registration with the election commission was illegal because its charter breached the secular constitution, leaving it unable to contest next year's general elections.

Sporadic and smaller clashes were also reported in other parts of the country and in the capital Dhaka, where Jamaat activists and members of the party's student wing exploded home-made bombs on roads.

A spokesman for Dhaka metropolitan police told AFP that five protesters were arrested over the demonstrations.

The High Court ruling came after a case was filed in January 2009 seeking to scrap Jamaat's registration just days after a secular government took power.

Secular protesters have long demanded that Jamaat be banned for its role in the 1971 war of independence, during which it opposed Bangladesh's breakaway from Pakistan.

Bangladesh is reeling from deadly violence, which has erupted since a tribunal hearing allegations of crimes dating back to the war began handing down sentences, including against senior Jamaat figures.

At least 150 people have died in the political violence since the start of the year, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.