DHAKA, Bangladesh, June 13 (UPI) — More than 8,500 people were detained in a crackdown on violence against secular activists and religious minorities, Bangladesh police reported Monday.
The security operation, against suspected Islamist militants with criminal records, began Friday. It was prompted by assaults by machete-wielding assailants who target bloggers advocating secularism and atheism, as well as leaders of religious minorities, university professors and foreign aid workers in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation.
At least 40 people in Bangladesh have been killed by Islamist radicals since 2013.
Human rights groups have warned that mass arrests could weaken the already fragile and ineffective Bangladeshi government. Police said several suspected members of Islamist groups in custody died in shootouts with police, and human rights activists say the country could be caught in a cycle of violence.
In April, the editor of Bangladesh’s only gay magazine was hacked to death in Dhaka; days earlier a university professor was killed in a machete attack by two men on a motorcycle in Rajshahi, and a Dhaka law student who expressed secular opinions in an online blog was similarly killed.
“It may take time, but God willing, we will be able to bring [the perpetrators] under control,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said Saturday at a meeting of her ruling Awami League political party.
Critics have said common criminals, and not Islamist radicals, have been arrested in the government dragnet, and have suggested the real motivation for the crackdown is the extension of Awami League power over opposition parties.
The Islamic State and al-Qaida have announced they are behind many of the killings, which the government disputes. A government minister suggested Israel can be linked to the assaults as part of an “international conspiracy” against Bangladesh, a charge Israel called “utter drivel.”