Islamist militants armed with sharp weapons slaughtered 20 people, including a young Indian woman, at an upscale café in Dhaka before government forces stormed the building to end a 12-hour standoff on Saturday.
The Islamic State (IS) said it was responsible for the attack, but that claim has yet to be confirmed by Dhaka which has in the past denied the presence of the group on its soil.
Hours before the government confirmed the fatalities, IS’ news agency Amaq said 20 hostages, mostly foreigners, had been killed. It also posted photos of bodies and blood smeared across floors that it said were dead foreigners at the popular Holey Artisan Bakery. Indian and western intelligence agencies told Hindustan Times the attack was carried out by the IS’ Bangladeshi module.
Among those killed was Tarishi Jain, 19, whose family moved to Dhaka about 20 years ago, and who was on a break from classes at University of California, Berkeley.
Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj tweeted: “Extremely pained to share that the terrorists have killed Tarushi, an Indian girl who was taken hostage in the terror attack in Dhaka,” using a different spelling for the victim’s name.
Another Indian national, a doctor identified only as Satyapal, had a lucky escape after he spoke Bengali and posed as a Bangladeshi, sources said.
Reports quoted survivors as saying the militants told locals to stay out of the way, and hacked and butchered those who couldn’t recite from the Quran. One of the attackers cursed a diner for sitting with non-Muslims during Ramzan.
Two police officers were killed in the initial exchange of fire that erupted soon after the attackers stormed the building split between a bakery and the O’Kitchen Restaurant at around 9pm on Friday. Ali Arsalan, co-owner of the restaurant, said his staff told him the attackers yelled “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great).
The attackers exchanged sporadic gunfire with police and troops of the Rapid Action Battalion outside for several hours before the army stormed the building on Saturday morning and ended a 12-hour siege.
About 7.40 am Saturday, Bangladeshi troops stormed the bakery, killing six of the attackers and detaining a seventh.
Nine Italians, seven Japanese and an US national were among the dead. Thirteen hostages were rescued, including one Japanese national and two Sri Lankans. The Japanese man was taken to hospital with a gunshot wound, a Japanese government spokesman said.
Among those dead was the wife of an Italian businessman killed by a machete. She was found by her husband after he spent all night hiding behind a tree outside the cafe while the gunmen were inside, said Agnese Barolo, a friend who lives in Dhaka and spoke to him.
The hostage crisis began when security guards in the Gulshan district of Dhaka, popular with expatriates, noticed several gunmen outside a medical centre, officials said. When the guards approached, the gunmen ran into a building housing the restaurant, packed with people waiting for tables.
Police said the assailants exchanged sporadic gunfire with police outside for several hours.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina condemned the attack and vowed to fight the militants.
Speaking on television soon after security forces wound up the operation in Dhaka, Hasina said she was determined to eradicate terrorism in Bangladesh, which has seen a spate of Islamist attacks against intellectuals, gays and minority Hindus.
“It was an extremely heinous act. What kind of Muslims are these people? They don’t have any religion?” she said while speaking at the inauguration of two newly built highways that was broadcast live by state television.
“People must resist these terrorists. My government is determined to root out terrorism and militancy from Bangladesh…There is no place for terrorism or terrorists on Bangladesh’s soil.”
Hasina praised the security forces for saving many lives. “Because of the role of the joint forces, the terrorists could not flee,” she said.
The attack 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 majority-Muslim Bangladesh.
Earlier on Friday, a Hindu priest was hacked to death near a temple in Jhenaidah district, 300 km southwest of Dhaka.
Both Islamic State and al Qaeda have claimed most of these killings, although local authorities insist no operational links exist between Bangladeshi militants and international jihadi networks.
(With inputs from agencies)