Security officials in Bangladesh have stepped up a search for evidence and the possible masterminds behind a deadly attack in a popular cafe in the capital, Dhaka, as the prime minister visited a stadium where the bodies of the victims were taken.
At least 20 hostages, including 18 foreigners and two policemen, died in Friday night’s attack, which was claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group – a claim denied by the government.
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Six attackers were killed by paramilitary forces in the final stages of the 10-hour standoff at the Holey Artisan Bakery cafe, but one suspect was taken alive and was being interrogated by Bangladeshi intelligence.
Authorities released photographs of the bodies of five attackers, along with their first names: Akash, Badhon, Bikash, Don and Ripon. Police said the men belonged to the banned domestic group Jumatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh, or JMB, and their families had not heard from them in months.
Asked whether they might also have had ISIL ties, Police Inspector General AKM Shahidul Hoque said authorities were investigating that possibility.
‘They do not have any religion’
Although the police said ISIL links were being investigated, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan refuted on Sunday the possibility that the group directed the attack from abroad.
The government says the group based in Syria and Iraq has no presence in Bangladesh, and in the past has suggested that any claims of responsibility for violence waged in the South Asian country are simply opportunistic attempts at grabbing global attention.
“They are all Bangladeshis. They are from rich families, they have good educational background,” Khan said of the attackers.
The siege marked an escalation in the violence that has hit Bangladesh with increasing frequency. Most of the attacks in the past several months have involved machete-wielding men singling out individual activists, foreigners and religious minorities.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has blamed her political opponents of trying to create chaos by backing domestic fighters.
“Anyone who believes in religion cannot do such an act,” Hasina said on Saturday. “They do not have any religion. Their only religion is terrorism.”
On Monday, she paid her respects to the victims by visiting an army stadium where the bodies were kept. The bodies would be handed over to the families soon after, officials said.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has offered Hasina help to investigate those behind the killings “in accordance with the highest international standards and offered immediate assistance from US law enforcement, including the FBI”, according to a State Department spokesman.
Travel warnings issued
The 20 hostages who were killed included nine Italians, seven Japanese, three Bangladeshis and one Indian teenager. Thirteen hostages were rescued when commandos stormed the cafe on Saturday morning.
Another 25 officers and one civilian were wounded, and some of the rescued hostages had injuries. There was no information on their condition.
The attack was the worst in the recent series of attacks by hardline fighters in the moderate, mostly Muslim nation of 160 million.
Unlike in the previous attacks, the assailants were well-prepared and heavily armed with guns, bombs and sharp objects that police later said were used to torture some of the 35 captives.
The fact that the attackers targeted a popular restaurant in the heart of the diplomatic quarter of Bangladesh’s capital signalled a possible change in tactics.
The restaurant overlooking a lake serves Spanish food and is frequented by residents of Gulshan, an affluent neighbourhood where most of the foreign embassies are located.
The hostages were asked to recite verses from the Quran, to prove themselves Muslim, according to a witness. Those who passed were allowed to eat. Those who failed were tortured and slain.
Western embassies issued travel warnings to their citizens, advising those in the country to be vigilant and avoid places frequented by foreigners in the diplomatic zone. The US embassy also urged its citizens and personnel to avoid travelling on foot or in open vehicles exposed to potential attackers.
In its claim of responsibility, ISIL said its operatives had targeted the citizens of “Crusader countries” in the attack, warning that citizens of such countries would not be safe “as long as their warplanes kill Muslims”. The statement was circulated in a manner consistent with past ISIL claims of responsibility.