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A prominent Bangladeshi-American blogger known for speaking out against religious extremism has been hacked to death as he walked through Bangladesh’s capital with his wife.

The attack on Avijit Roy, a Bangladesh-born US citizen, occurred on a crowded pavement as he and his wife, Rafida Ahmed, were returning from a book fair at Dhaka University.

Ms Ahmed, who is also a blogger, was seriously injured. It was the latest in a series of attacks on secular writers in Bangladesh in recent years.

A previously unknown militant group, Ansar Bangla 7, claimed responsibility for the attack, assistant police commissioner SM Shibly Noman said.

Mr Roy “was the target because of his crime against Islam”, the group said on Twitter.

Mr Roy was a prominent voice against religious intolerance, and his family and friends say he had been threatened for his writings.

At about 8.45pm, a group of men ambushed the couple as they walked toward a roadside tea stall, with at least two of the attackers hitting them with meat cleavers, police chief Sirajul Islam said.

The attackers then ran away, disappearing into the crowds.Two blood-stained cleavers were found after the attack, he said.

Islamist extremism has made few inroads in Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority nation of 160 million people, but there have been a series of similar attacks in recent years blamed on militants.

A divide has become increasingly visible between secular bloggers and conservative Islamic groups, often covertly connected with Islamist parties, with the secularists urging authorities to ban religion-based politics while the Islamists press for blasphemy laws to protect their faith.

Islam is Bangladesh’s state religion but the country is governed by secular laws based on British common law, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has repeatedly said she will not give in to religious extremism.

Mr Roy had founded a popular Bengali-language blog, Mukto-mona, or Free Mind, which featured articles on scientific reasoning and religion.

The website has apparently been shut down since the attack, but Mr Roy defended atheism in a January posting on Facebook, calling it “a rational concept to oppose any unscientific and irrational belief”.

Anujit Roy, his younger brother, said Mr Roy had returned to the country earlier this month from the US and had been planning to go back in March.

In 2013, another blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, who also spoke out against religious extremism, was killed by still-unidentified assailants near his Dhaka home. In 2004, Humayun Azad, a prominent writer and teacher at Dhaka University, was seriously injured in an attack when returning from the same book fair.

Baki Billah, a friend of Mr Roy and a blogger, told Independent TV that Mr Roy had been threatened earlier by people who were upset at his writing.