DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) – Bangladesh authorities questioned movie theater employees yesterday after a string of deadly bomb explosions at four crowded cinemas, and the government ruled out al-Qaida involvement in the attacks.

The blasts Saturday night tore through movie houses during a 30-minute period, killing 18 people and injuring more than 200 in Mymensingh, a small town 70 miles north of the capital, Dhaka.

The government ordered heightened security at mosques, temples, churches, shopping malls and theaters and appointed a retired judge to launch an investigation.

Visiting the attack sites yesterday, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia said police had many leads and that “those who are responsible will be tracked down and put on trial.”

The bombs were planted in the theaters’ projection rooms, a police officer said on condition of anonymity. They exploded while the cinemas were packed with early evening moviegoers – most of them Muslims celebrating the Eid-ul-Fitr festival marking the end of the fasting month Ramadan.

As many as 3,000 people were inside or near the theaters at the time.

The army defused a fifth bomb Saturday night in a theater in the nearby town Gaibandha, wrapped in a plastic bag tied to the back of a seat, police said.

Police chief Modabbir Hossain Chowdhury said the blasts were “the work of an organized group,” but he stopped short of labeling it an act of terror.

Muslim Bangladesh has denied accusations by neighboring India that it has become a safe haven for terrorists and rejected media claims that it has been used as a base for al-Qaida.

“I … would like to categorically state here that there is no al-Qaida network on the soil of Bangladesh,” Home Minister Altaf Hussain Chowdhury told a news conference.

No suspects have been identified and no one claimed responsibility for the attacks. Police detained 21 theater employees for questioning.

The explosions killed 15 people Saturday, and three men died of injuries yesterday. Doctors feared the death toll would rise because many wounded were in critical condition. Poorly equipped hospitals appealed for medicine and blood donations.

Army troops patrolled the small town as thousands of people besieged hospitals looking for relatives and friends.

Many of the victims were hit by falling bricks and steel, witnesses said.

“It was a terrible scene. Doctors were overwhelmed with so many injured,” said Muzahed Ahmed, a university teacher.

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