Twenty foreign hostages were killed to death on Saturday morning by radical militants who attacked an upscale café in the Bangladeshi capital shouting “Allahu Akbar.”
The foreigners were killed before police stormed the building on Saturday and rescued 13 hostages, officials said.
Brig-Gen Nayeen Ashtaq Chowdhury confirmed at a press conference that 20 people were found killed using locally made sharp weapons, after police and military broke the siege with Operation Thunderbolt, which lasted from 7.40am to 8.30am.
Six gunmen were killed during the police operation and one was captured, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said in a TV broadcast.
Two or three gunmen are believed to have been arrested. Police found pistols, rifles, bombs and knives at the scene.
The attack, claimed by ISIS, marks a major escalation in a campaign by militants over the past 18 months that had targeted mostly individuals advocating a secular or liberal lifestyle in mostly Muslim Bangladesh.
The siege in Gulshan, Bangladesh’s most affluent district, started more than twelve hours earlier, when eight or nine gunmen stormed the restaurant and opened fire, killing two policemen.
Police took the decision to bring the siege to its ultimately bloody end on Saturday morning, after futile negotiations with the gunmen.
The 13 hostages that were rescued included one Japanese and two Sri Lankans, the army said.
One Japanese man was among those rescued and taken to a Dhaka hospital with a gunshot wound, a Japanese government spokesman said. Seven Japanese were unaccounted for.
An unknown number of Italians were among the hostages who were killed, a source at Italy’s foreign ministry said on Saturday. Seven Italians were in the cafe when the attack started, including several working in the garment industry, Italian media have reported.
ISIS posted photos of what it said were dead foreigners killed in the assault.
SERIES OF MURDERS
The hostage crisis marks an escalation from a recent spate of murders claimed by ISIS and al Qaeda on liberals, gays, foreigners and religious minorities.
A Hindu priest was hacked to death on Friday at a temple in Jhinaidah district, 300 km (188 miles) southwest of Dhaka.
Both ISIS and al Qaeda have claimed responsibility for many of the killings, although local authorities say no operational links exist between Bangladeshi militants and international jihadi networks.
Bangladesh security officials say two local militant groups, Ansar-al-Islam and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, have been behind the spate of violence over the past 18 months. Ansar pledges allegiance to al Qaeda, while Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen claims it represents ISIS.
“The bottom line is Bangladesh has plenty of local, often unaffiliated, militants and radicals happy to stage attacks in ISIS’s name,” said Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at The Wilson Centre in Washington D.C.
The ISIS terrorist group had claimed more attacks in Bangladesh than in Pakistan or Afghanistan, he said.
The restaurant assault also comes after Bangladesh hanged an Islamist party leader, Motiur Rahman Nizami, on May 11 for genocide and other crimes committed during a 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. That has drawn an angry reaction and some scattered violence from supporters. Nizami, 73, was a former legislator and minister during opposition leader Khaleda Zia’s last term as prime minister.
Foreign diplomats and human rights groups have warned that Bangladesh’s ongoing war crime tribunals and the government’s pressure on the Bangladesh Nationalist Party have created a backlash domestically, according to Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“They need to maintain legal political space for Jamaat and the BNP so that they don’t drive people into the shadows and violence,” Adams said in a telephone interview, cautioning that it’s not known whether that dynamic and the bloodshed in Dhaka were related.