Gruesome murders: Bangladesh reels from Islamist attacks

DHAKA - Suspected Islamists have hacked to death two gay rights activists in the Bangladeshi capital, the latest in a series of chilling murders in the Muslim-majority country.

With the list of victims growing fast and rights groups warning that the attackers appear to be expanding their range of targets, pressure is mounting on the Bangladesh government to act.

Since early last year, at least six secular bloggers, liberal activists and writers have also been killed in Bangladesh - including Bangladeshi-born US citizen Avijit Roy who was hacked to death on a crowded Dhaka street last February.

Many more bloggers and activists, who have also openly criticised Islam, have received death threats, forcing some to flee the country or go into hiding.

A number of Christians, Hindus and Sufi, Ahmadi and Shiite Muslims have also been killed since last year, heightening fears for religious minorities in the officially secular country that comprises mainly Sunni Muslims.

Two foreigners, a Japanese farmer and a faith-based Italian aid worker, were also shot dead last year.

An English professor was hacked to death on Saturday as he walked to a bus stop. Although he had never knowingly criticised Islam, police suspect he was targeted for leading music and literature groups at his university.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for murdering the two foreigners, warning in September that "citizens of the crusader coalition" would not be safe in Muslim nations.

IS later also later claimed to have carried out a bombing at a packed Shiite shrine, and other attacks on minorities. The professor, it said, was killed for "calling to the creed of atheism".

A Bangladeshi branch of Al-Qaeda said Tuesday it carried out the latest murders, because the two men had worked to "promote homosexuality". It has also said it was behind the murders of the secular bloggers and writers.

But Bangladesh's government rejects both groups' claims and says homegrown Islamist groups are instead responsible for all the attacks.

Bangladesh's top police officers have also repeatedly rejected the claims, saying there is no evidence that either group has any presence in the country. They have echoed the government in blaming local banned Islamist outfits.

Independent security analysts are more cautious, saying it is possible that some homegrown militant groups have established contact with IS or Al-Qaeda or have been inspired by their operations in the Middle East and north Africa.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also points the finger at the main opposition and its Islamist ally, accusing them of trying to destabilise the country - claims rejected by both groups.

Bangladesh has been plagued by political unrest in the last three years, a period which has seen the largest Islamist party banned, while the mainstream opposition boycotted the last elections in January 2014 over vote rigging fears.

Death sentences handed down to several leading Islamists for war crimes over their roles in the 1971 conflict to secede from Pakistan have exacerbated tensions between the secular government and its opponents.

Scores of opposition activists including Islamists have gone missing or been detained since last year's major crackdown by the government on deadly opposition-led street protests.

Experts fear this crackdown has radicalised some of Hasina's opponents.

Last year a court sentenced two students to death for the 2013 murder of Ahmed Rajib Haider, the first of the attacks targeting secular writers.

Another six people were convicted on lesser charges related to Haider's death.

But no one has been convicted over any of the deaths that have occurred since, although police have made numerous arrests.

Secular activists across the country have demanded greater police protection and justice, fearing a culture of impunity for the attackers.

Their fears have been bolstered by comments of top officials, including Prime Minister Hasina who has criticised the secular bloggers' "dirty" writings on religion.