DHAKA: Protesters display placards during an anti-France demonstration yesterday. - AFP

DHAKA: More than 50,000 people took part yesterday in the biggest demonstration yet in Bangladesh over French President Emmanuel Macron's defense of the right to publish cartoons of the Prophet. The rally which started at Bangladesh's biggest mosque was stopped from getting close to the French embassy where security has been stepped up amid mounting tensions over Macron's comments.

The march was more than two kilometers long and crowds-ignoring coronavirus social distancing rules-carried effigies of Macron, caricatures and a fake coffin for the French president. Police estimated some 50,000 people took part in the third major anti-France protest in the past week while organizers said there were more than 100,000.

End ties with France
Bangladesh's biggest Islamist group urged government to cut diplomatic ties with France within 24 hours, as police stopped thousands of its supporters from marching towards the French embassy. "We are giving an ultimatum to the government to end diplomatic ties with France within 24 hours," said Junayed Babunagari, head of Hefazat-e-Islam. "If our demands are not met, we will announce our next course of action," he shouted as mostly unmasked protesters wearing white prayers caps cheered him on.

Protesters chanted "We are all soldiers of the prophet", "We are not afraid of bullets or bombs" and "Macron, you are in danger." They burned one effigy of the French leader. Police put up a barbed wire barricade across a major road to stop the demonstrators getting close to Dhaka's embassy district and the event broke up without trouble. Demonstrations have been held in many Muslim majority countries after Macron defended France's freedom of speech laws, in the wake of the killing of a teacher who had shown caricatures of the Muslim prophet to his class. Islam forbids any depictions of Mohammed.

Around 3,000 people also demonstrated yesterday outside the French embassy in Jakarta in Indonesia-the world's biggest Muslim majority nation-according to police. Protesters burned pictures of Macron and waved placards emblazoned with a shoeprint on his face and others depicting the French leader with devil horns. Yesterday's rally in Bangladesh was called by Hefazat-i-Islami, one of the biggest radical Muslim political groups in the country of 168 million people. Organizers said police had prevented thousands of others from joining the rally by stopping buses, trucks, and cars from entering the capital.

Junaid Babunagari, the firebrand deputy chief of Hezafat, called on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to make the Bangladesh parliament condemn Macron. "I call on traders to throw away French products. I ask the UN to take stern action against France," he told the rally. Bangladesh's government has so far not commented on France or the protests. Other Hefazat leaders said Macron must apologize to Muslims around the world. The South Asian country has seen other giant rallies after the publication of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed by Danish newspapers.

Islamist groups in Bangladesh, including Hezafat, have demanded blasphemy laws in the country that would allow for the death sentence in serious cases. A 2013 rally in Dhaka by thousands of Hefazat supporters demanding a blasphemy law ended in unrest in which more than 50 people were killed. Between 2013 and 2016, nearly a dozen secular activists and bloggers were killed by Islamist extremists in Bangladesh after they were accused of defaming Islam. Militants also staged an attack on a Dhaka cafe in 2016 in which 17 foreigners were killed. - Agencies