Islamic State posted photos on Saturday it claimed to be of foreigners killed in an attack on a cafe in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where gunmen were holding hostages as police laid siege to the building, the group’s news agency Amaq said.
Hours into the standoff, in which Bangladeshi officials said two police officers were killed, the Islamic State issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack.
“Islamic State commandos attack a restaurant frequented by foreigners in the city of Dhaka in Bangladesh,” reported Amaq, an information outlet linked to the Islamic State.
The group claims to still be holding a number of hostages inside the cafe.
Eight to 10 armed men entered the restaurant, where 20 foreigners were dining, around 8:45 p.m., according to Sumon Reza, a kitchen worker who escaped and spoke to reporters. The attackers shouted “God is great” before opening fire and detonating several explosives, Reza said. He said the attackers were armed with pistols, swords and bombs.
Amaq later reported, “More than 20 individuals of varying nationalities killed after a commando attack on the Artisan restaurant.” There was no way to confirm that claim.
Friday’s attack was the latest in a series of killings by Islamist extremists that have rocked Bangladesh in recent months. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for 18 other attacks in the last year, most perpetrated against religious minorities, including Hindus, Buddhists and Christians.
The increase in violence has raised fears that the once-moderate country is in the grip of a wave of fanaticism that the government refuses to acknowledge. Despite months of attacks and subsequent claims of responsibility by the Islamic State and al-Qaida, the government — which recently concluded a crackdown on extremists in which 10,000 people were arrested — maintains that neither terror group has a presence in the country.
“The continuous denial of the presence of local militant group connections with international terror groups has not been helpful,” said Ali Riaz, a professor of politics and government at Illinois State University. “What we’re witnessing can’t be small groups coming together. It is clearly a very coordinated attack. If this doesn’t convince them to come out of denial, then I don’t know what will.”
As gunfire and explosions rang out across the upscale Gulshan neighborhood Friday, witnesses took to Twitter and posted images of armed paramilitary officers surrounding the restaurant, the Holey Artisan Bakery, which is popular with expatriates, diplomats and middle-class families.
Other than the two officers killed in the standoff, 30 were wounded, mostly from shrapnel, officials said. Television stations broadcast video of bloodied officers being carried on stretchers from the scene until officials asked the networks to stop.
Several foreigners worked at the restaurant, including an Italian who escaped and an Argentine, whose whereabouts is unknown, local news media reported.
Reza, the kitchen worker, said he and another employee were able to escape by jumping from the building’s second floor.
“They blasted several crude bombs, causing wide-scale panic among everyone,” Reza told a Bangladeshi newspaper, The Daily Star. “I managed to flee during this confusion.”
The total number of hostages, including restaurant employees, was not known. Neither were the identities of the attackers.
“We are requesting the ones who are inside the restaurant to talk to us, relay us your demands,” said Benazir Ahmed, the director general of the Rapid Action Battalion, the country’s counterterrorism force, according to The Dhaka Tribune.
Five hours into the standoff, however, the police had not made contact with the attackers, according to the newspaper.
Instead, a cordon was placed around the restaurant. Family members gathered at the scene, desperate for information.
Fazley Rahim Khan, a businessman, waited on the edge of the police line, barely able to see the restaurant. He said he believed his son Tahmid Hasib Khan, 22, was being held hostage.
Khan said his son, a student in Canada, had just returned home Friday for Ramadan. The family celebrated the iftar, the evening meal breaking the Ramadan fast, and then the son headed to the restaurant.
“I’m just praying to get back my son,” he said.
The State Department alerted Americans in the area to the reports of the attack and advised them to “shelter in place and monitor news.”
“The situation’s ongoing, obviously — too early for us to say who’s involved, motivation, any of that stuff,” said John Kirby, the State Department spokesman. “It’s all still unfolding right now.”
Kirby said all Americans working for the U.S. mission in Dhaka were safe and accounted for, but officials were still trying to locate Bangladeshi employees.