updated 8/22/2004 5:57:29 AM ET 2004-08-22T09:57:29

Soldiers and armed police patrolled the Bangladeshi capital on Sunday, a day after more than a dozen grenades were thrown at an opposition rally, killing at least 18 people and injuring hundreds.

The main opposition leader, Sheikh Hasina, escaped injury when at least 13 bombs exploded while she addressed thousands of supporters outside her Awami League party’s headquarters in the city center.

At least 18 people were killed and more than 300 injured, including senior opposition members, ATN Bangla TV station reported Sunday. The toll increased after four more deaths were reported in Dhaka hospitals, it said.

Doctors were overwhelmed and appealed for blood. Many people were critically wounded in the blasts and the number of dead could rise, they said. Hasina’s party said it will hold mass funeral prayers for the dead across the country Sunday.

No one claimed responsibility, but Awami League General Secretary Abdul Jalil claimed Hasina was the target. The rally was called to protest a series of explosions early this month that killed two people, including an opposition supporter, in the northeastern city of Sylhet.

PM condemns 'dastardly attack'
Witnesses and the local media say 13 hand grenades went off.

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia condemned the “dastardly attack” and said her government will try to find those responsible.

Angry opposition supporters smashed or burned dozens of passing vehicles to protest the attack. Police fired tear gas to disperse the rampaging crowd, witnesses said, while security forces patrolled the streets.

Violence also spread to about a dozen other cities and towns, where protesters smashed vehicles and attacked shops, witnesses said. Security was stepped up across the country, authorities said, with paramilitary troops and police patrolling the capital in full force.

The Awami League called for nationwide general strikes on Tuesday and Wednesday to protest the bombings.

It has accused Zia’s government of corruption, incompetence and harassment of political opponents. It has asked Zia to step down and call early polls. Zia’s government rejects the allegations and has vowed to remain in power until its five-year term ends in 2006.

Bangladesh, an impoverished nation of 140 million people, has a history of political unrest.

At least 134 people have died in bomb blasts in the past five years, Dhaka’s New Age daily said Sunday. Bangladesh also has witnessed two presidents assassinated in military coups and 19 failed coup attempts since gaining independence from Pakistan in 1971.

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