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Dhaka police criticized for not heeding online terrorist attack threat, may have mistakenly killed hostage

Reuters

Bangladeshi police said on Tuesday one of the men they shot dead during the siege of a Dhaka cafe on the weekend may have been a hostage killed by mistake, while the hunt for accomplices of the gunmen who killed 20 people focused on six suspects.

Police on Tuesday named five Bangladeshi gunmen who stormed the restaurant in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone late on Friday. Most of the victims in the violence claimed by Islamic State were foreigners, from Italy, Japan, India and the United States.

It was one of the deadliest militant attacks in Bangladesh, where Islamic State and al-Qaida have claimed a series of killings of liberals and members of religious minorities in the past year.

The government has dismissed those claims, as it did the Islamic State claim of responsibility for Friday’s attack.

Pictures of five young men clutching guns and grinning in front of a black flag were posted on an Islamic State website hours after the attack, along with the claim of responsibility, but despite that, authorities have ruled out a foreign link.

Police believe that Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), an outlawed domestic group that has pledged allegiance to Islamic State, played a significant role in organizing the band of privileged, educated young attackers.

Confusion over exactly how many gunmen were involved was at least partly cleared up on Tuesday when police said among the six people security forces killed when they stormed the building to end a 12-hour standoff was Saiful Islam Chowkidar, a pizza maker at the Holey Artisan restaurant.

“We killed six people in the restaurant. A case has been registered against five. The sixth man was a restaurant employee,” Saiful Islam, a top police official investigating the attack, told Reuters.

“He may not be involved,” he said, adding that the investigation was going on.

An employee of the cafe, shown a photo of a man killed at the eatery and wearing a chef’s outfit, identified him as Chowkidar, and said he had worked there for 18 months.

Police named five men as attackers in a case filed on Tuesday to allow them to launch official investigations, including questioning families of the militants for clues as to what turned them into killers.

Two other suspects are hospitalized.

Police said they were hunting for six members of the JMB who were suspected of organizing the attack.

“Six members of JMB have been shown as accused in the case. We are trying to arrest them because they could be the mastermind,” Islam said.

The JMB has been accused of involvement in many of the killings over the past year and Islam said police were interrogating more than 130 of its members already in custody in the hope of gleaning clues.

“We don’t know who is the mastermind behind the attack. We just know that these boys were guided to launch an attack on the restaurant,” he said.

The five named in the case filing were Nibras Islam, Rohan Imtiaz, Meer Saameh Mubasheer, Khairul Islam and Shafiqul Islam.

The attack marked a major escalation in the scale and brutality of violence aimed at forcing strict Islamic rule in Bangladesh, whose 160 million people are mostly Muslim.

It has shocked the country, as have details emerging about the well-to-do lives of some of the gunmen.

At least three of the gunmen were from wealthy, liberal families who had attended elite Dhaka schools, in contrast to the traditional Bangladeshi militant’s path from poverty and a madrassa education to violence.

Three of the attackers had been missing since the beginning of the year, police have said.

Two had attended a private university in Malaysia, one of whom, Nibras Islam, was not particularly religious, according to a student who played soccer with him at a private college in Dhaka between 2009 and 2011.

“We are in touch with investigators in Malaysia and they are sharing all the information, but as of now we have not found any links with international militant groups,” Islam said.

One of the dead gunmen was from a poor family and had studied at a madrassa and another hailed from a lower-middle class background, said another senior police official who declined to be identified.

Bangladesh police, besides shooting dead the pizza chef of the Dhaka restaurant, mistakenly thinking he was one of the militants who killed 20 people, also apparently misread online warnings of an impending assault, police and government officials said on Tuesday.

New details from interviews with the officials and the first information report registered at a Dhaka police station painted a picture of security agencies slow to deal with Friday’s attack.

“This was the first time in Bangladesh such a thing had taken place. Nobody was prepared for it. They did not realize the gravity of the situation initially,” H.T. Imam, a political adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, told Reuters in an interview. “Initial response was slow.”

Bangladesh authorities who monitor social media saw several messages on Friday posted on Twitter saying there would be an attack, he said.

But the police thought any attack was more likely to target embassies and major hotels and restaurants, Imam said. Police closed major hotels and eateries in and around hotel Westin, about 1 km (0.62 mile) from the Holey Artisan Bakery and O’Kitchen, the restaurant that was attacked, he said.

“They (police) didn’t think at all it can be this place,” Imam said. “It is to be investigated whether there was an intelligence failure.”

The attack, claimed by Islamic State, marked a major escalation in the scale and brutality of violence aimed at forcing strict Islamic rule onto Bangladesh.

Police named five Bangladeshi gunmen who stormed the restaurant: Nibras Islam, Rohan Imtiaz, Meer Saameh Mubasheer, Khairul Islam and Shafiqul Islam. Several other people have been arrested.

The attackers separated foreigners from locals, and most of the dead were foreigners, from Italy, Japan, India and the United States. But survivors told local television that Muslims who could not recite the Quran were also killed.

The targeting of foreigners has unsettled the country’s $26 billion garment export industry, with some foreign retailers suspending all business travel to the country.

The bodies of the nine Italian victims were flown to Rome on Tuesday. Investigators there are looking into whether Italians were specifically targeted, a judicial source said.

Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who went to Rome’s Ciampino airport for the plane’s arrival, said he was committed to making sure the victims received state assistance in line with Italian law, which also provides for their families.

Islamic State and al-Qaida have claimed a series of killings of liberals and members of religious minorities in Bangladesh in the past year. The government has dismissed those claims, as it did Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for Friday’s attack.

Confusion over exactly how many gunmen were involved was at least partly cleared up on Tuesday, when police named Chowkidar, the pizza, as among the six people security forces killed when they stormed the building to end a 12-hour standoff.

In the police filing, seen by Reuters, Chowkidar’s name was included among 21 hostages killed by attackers armed with knives, guns and explosives.

At least three Bangladeshis were also murdered during the assault. One was a Muslim woman, a regular at the restaurant who did not wear the Islamic veil, whose throat was slashed when she refused to recite the Quran, Imam said. Two police officers were killed outside the restaurant.

The police report showed that police made an initial attempt to enter the restaurant after the attackers stormed in, but facing gunfire and grenades they held off any action for more than eight hours. “The terrorists kept firing and throwing grenades at us every time we moved forward,” the report said.

Between 30 and 35 policemen were wounded when the attackers threw grenades at a force stationed to the west of the cafe, forcing police to wait for reinforcements. Eventually, the police raid was launched after daybreak.

Imam said police repeatedly sent messages asking what the attackers wanted, initially thinking they sought a ransom. The fear was the hostages would be killed if the police forced their way in, he said.

“The way the police and the RAB acted in the early hours raises questions that need to be looked into,” Imam said, referring to the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite counterterrorism unit.

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