By Ruma Paul
DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh's biggest Islamist group on Monday told the government to cut diplomatic ties with France within 24 hours, as police stopped thousands of its supporters from marching towards the French embassy.
Tens of thousands of Muslims across Bangladesh, the world's third-biggest Muslim country with more than 160 million people, have been protesting against remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron in a row about cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.
There have been similar protests in other mainly Muslim countries such as Indonesia over the dispute, which follows a knife attack outside a French school last month when a man of Chechen origin beheaded a teacher who had shown pupils the cartoons in a lesson on freedom of speech.
France has allowed displays of the cartoons, which are considered blasphemous by Muslims.
In its first comments on the matter, the Bangladesh government called for a "more nuanced global conversation on peaceful religious practise and urges all sides to exercise the freedom of expression responsibly".
Its statement noted the protests but did not refer to the demand by the Hefazat-e-Islam group regarding France, the fourth biggest export destination for Bangladesh's massive ready-made garment industry.
Earlier, thousands of protesters in the capital Dhaka had demanded a boycott of French products and an end to the country's ties with Paris.
"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.
Some protesters carried portraits of Macron with his face marked with an "X", while others held up his cutouts garlanded with shoes.
(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Krishna N. Das, Giles Elgood and Alex Richardson)