Bangladesh militants kill 20 before commandos end siege

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20 hostages killed in a siege at a cafe in Bangladesh

DHAKA, July 2 (Reuters) - Islamist militants killed 20 people, most of them foreigners, inside an upmarket restaurant in Bangladesh's capital, before security forces stormed the building and ended a 12-hour standoff on Saturday.

Islamic State said it was responsible for one of the most brazen attacks in the South Asian nation's history, but that claim has yet to be confirmed.

It 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.

The gunmen, who stormed the busy restaurant in Dhaka's diplomatic area late on Friday night, ordered all Bangladeshis to stand up before they began killing foreigners, a source briefed on the police investigation said.

Among the 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, Agnese Barolo, a friend who lives in Dhaka and spoke to him, told Reuters.

Seven Italians were in the cafe when the attack started, including several working in the garment industry, Italian media have reported, while seven Japanese citizens were unaccounted for.

The killing of foreigners will likely shatter the confidence of the expatriate community in Bangladesh, many of whom work for multinationals in the country's $26 billion garment sector that accounts for around 15 percent of the economy. Bangladesh is the world's second largest apparel exporter after China.

Thirteen hostages were rescued, including one Japanese and two Sri Lankans, the army said.

Photos from the scene:

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Gunmen attack restaurant in Dhaka
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Gunmen attack restaurant in Dhaka
DHAKA, BANGLADESH - JULY 1: An injured police officer is seen after armed attackers attack to a restaurant in Dhaka, Bangladesh on July 1, 2016. (Photo by Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DHAKA, BANGLADESH - JULY 1: Police officers take security measures after armed attackers attack to a restaurant in Dhaka, Bangladesh on July 1, 2016. (Photo by Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DHAKA, BANGLADESH - JULY 1: Police officers take security measures after armed attackers attack to a restaurant in Dhaka, Bangladesh on July 1, 2016. (Photo by Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DHAKA, BANGLADESH - JULY 2: Bangladeshi security stand guard near a restaurant that has been attacked by unidentified gunmen in the early hours of July 2, 206 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Gunmen have taken at least 20 foreigners hostage at a restaurant in the diplomatic area of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. (Photo by Mahmud Hossain Opu/Getty Images)
DHAKA, BANGLADESH - JULY 2: Bangladeshi police take cover near a restaurant that has been attacked by unidentified gunmen in the early hours of July 2, 206 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Gunmen have taken at least 20 foreigners hostage at a restaurant in the diplomatic area of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. (Photo by Mahmud Hossain Opu/Getty Images)
Bangladeshi security personnel stand guard after gunmen stormed a restaurant in Dhaka's high-security diplomatic district early on July 2, 2016. Gunmen stormed a crowded restaurant popular with foreigners in the Bangladeshi capital on July 1 night, apparently taking diners hostage and sparking a firefight with police in which at least two officers were killed, police and witnesses said. / AFP / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Bangladeshi police officers take cover as a man lies on the ground near the Holey Artisan Bakery restaurant during an attack by unidentified gunmen in Dhaka's high-security diplomatic district on July 2, 2016. Gunmen stormed a crowded restaurant popular with foreigners in the Bangladeshi capital on July 1 night, apparently taking diners hostage and sparking a firefight with police in which at least two officers were killed, police and witnesses said. / AFP / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
DHAKA, BANGLADESH - JULY 1: Bangladeshi security forces take security measures after armed attack held to a restaurant at a diplomatic area in Dhaka, Bangladesh on July 1, 2016. (Photo by Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DHAKA, BANGLADESH - JULY 1: Bangladeshi security forces take security measures after armed attack held to a restaurant at a diplomatic area in Dhaka, Bangladesh on July 1, 2016. (Photo by Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DHAKA, BANGLADESH - JULY 1: Bangladeshi security forces take security measures after armed attack held to a restaurant at a diplomatic area in Dhaka, Bangladesh on July 1, 2016. (Photo by Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
DHAKA, BANGLADESH - JULY 1: An ambulance is seen at the site after armed attack held to a restaurant at a diplomatic area in Dhaka, Bangladesh on July 1, 2016. (Photo by Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Bangladeshi security personnel stand guard after gunmen stormed a restaurant in Dhaka's high-security diplomatic district early on July 2, 2016. Gunmen stormed a crowded restaurant popular with foreigners in the Bangladeshi capital on July 1 night, apparently taking diners hostage and sparking a firefight with police in which at least two officers were killed, police and witnesses said. / AFP / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
DHAKA, BANGLADESH - JULY 1: Bangladeshi security forces take security measures after armed attack held to a restaurant at a diplomatic area in Dhaka, Bangladesh on July 1, 2016. (Photo by Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Hostage situation near Dhaka, Bangladesh still fluid but State Dept says all US citizens working for chief of mission accounted for.
An unidentified security personnel is taken for medical attention after a group of gunmen attacked a restaurant popular with foreigners in a diplomatic zone of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, July 1, 2016. A group of gunmen attacked a restaurant popular with foreigners in a diplomatic zone of the Bangladeshi capital on Friday night, taking hostages and exchanging gunfire with security forces, according to a restaurant staff member and local media reports. (AP Photo)
Bangladeshi security personnel stand guard near a restaurant that has reportedly been attacked by unidentified gunmen in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, July 1, 2016. Local media reported that a group of attackers took hostages inside a restaurant frequented by both locals and foreigners in a diplomatic zone in Bangladesh's capital. (AP Photo)
People help an unidentified injured person after a group of gunmen attacked a restaurant popular with foreigners in a diplomatic zone of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, July 1, 2016. A group of gunmen attacked a restaurant popular with foreigners in a diplomatic zone of the Bangladeshi capital on Friday night, taking hostages and exchanging gunfire with security forces, according to a restaurant staff member and local media reports. (AP Photo)
Bangladeshi security personnel stand guard near a restaurant that has reportedly been attacked by unidentified gunmen in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, July 1, 2016. Local media reported that a group of attackers took hostages inside a restaurant frequented by both locals and foreigners in a diplomatic zone in Bangladesh's capital. (AP Photo)
DHAKA, BANGLADESH - JULY 2: An injured Bangladeshi policeman being assisted after a granade attack at a restaurant nearby in the early hours of July 2, 2016 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Gunmen have taken at least 20 foreigners hostage at a restaurant in the diplomatic area of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. So-called Islamic State have claimed reponsibility for the attack, which has reportedly left at least 2 police officers dead and many more people injured. (Photo by Mahmud Hossain Opu/Getty Images)
DHAKA, BANGLADESH - JULY 02 : Bangladeshi police stand guard outside the Holey Artisan Bakery cafe, currently under a hostage siege by armed gunmen in Dhaka, Bangladesh on July 02, 2016. Multiple foreigners are being held hostage by eight or nine gunmen at O'kitchen restaurant, in the same building as the the Holey Artisan Bakery cafe - a location popular with expatriates and diplomats. A gun battle between the attackers and police wounded three people, including two officers. Police and security forces have sealed off the area in the city's Gulshan district and are trying to negotiate a hostage release. (Photo by zakir hossain chowdhury/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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"SHARP WEAPONS"

Army spokesman Colonel Rashidul Hasan said he could not yet confirm the nationalities of those who had died. Most of them had been killed by "sharp weapons."

Hasan said initially that it seemed all the victims were foreigners but now the army believed some locals were among the dead as well.

Six gunmen were killed during the police operation and one was captured, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said in a TV broadcast after the army concluded its operation to clear the cafe. Two police were killed in the initial assault.

Islamic State, which has claimed a series of machete attacks on minority groups in Bangladesh over the past year, posted photos of bodies and blood smeared across floors that it said were dead foreigners killed in the assault.

Police did not immediately confirm whether the pictures were from the site of the massacre.

Gowher Rizvi, an adviser to Hasina, told Reuters security forces had tried to negotiate with the gunmen.

SPORADIC GUNFIRE

The hostage crisis began when security guards in the Gulshan district of Dhaka, popular with expatriates, noticed several gunmen outside a medical center, Rizvi said. When the guards approached, the gunmen ran into a building housing the restaurant, packed with people waiting for tables, he said.

Ali Arsalan, co-owner of the restaurant, said his staff told him the attackers yelled "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) as they stormed the building, split between Holey Artisan Bakery and the O'Kitchen Restaurant.

The restaurant was regarded as a tranquil place that was safe to visit in an increasingly dangerous city.

Police said the assailants exchanged sporadic gunfire with police outside for several hours after the gunmen attacked the restaurant around 9 p.m. on Friday.

A police officer at the scene said when security forces tried to enter the premises at the beginning of the siege they were met with a hail of bullets and grenades that killed at least two of them.

A cafe employee who escaped told local television about 20 customers were in the restaurant at the time, most of them foreigners. Some 15 to 20 staff were working at the restaurant, the employee said.

The rescued Japanese man was eating dinner with seven other Japanese, all of whom were consultants for Japan's foreign aid agency, a Japanese government spokesman said. The fate of the other seven remained unknown.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the Japanese aid workers "were giving their all for the development of Bangladesh."

"We feel strong indignation at this inhumane, despicable act of terrorism, which has claimed many lives," he told reporters.

SPATE OF MURDERS

Bangladesh has seen a spate of murders in recent months claimed by Islamic State 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.

Local authorities say no operational links exist between Bangladeshi militants and international jihadi networks. They say two local militant groups, Ansar-al-Islam and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, have been behind the violence over the past 18 months. Ansar pledges allegiance to al Qaeda, while Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen claims it represents Islamic State.

"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., using an acronym commonly used for Islamic State.

Islamic State 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.

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. (Additional reporting by Krishna Das, Tom Lasseter, Rupam Jain, Tommy Wilkes and Aditya Kalra in NEW DELHI, Isla Binnie in ROME, Melissa Fares in NEW YORK ande Stanley White in TOKYO; Writing by Bill Tarrant and Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Nick Macfie)


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