DHAKA • Bangladesh began two days of national mourning yesterday after 20 hostages were slaughtered at a restaurant here as the government insisted that the attackers were home-grown militants and not members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.
Eighteen of those killed at the Western-style cafe were foreigners.
Nearly all were hacked to death with machetes, even though the hostage-takers had plenty of firearms. The attack was even more shocking as it came on the final weekend of Ramadan, with survivors describing how the hostage-takers made clear that their targets were non-Muslims, separating the locals from the foreigners.
Warning of a concerted bid to turn one of the world's most populous nations into a failed state, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina decreed the mourning period as she vowed to drag Bangladesh back from the brink.
A government minister insisted that the killers were members of a home-grown militant outfit and had no links to international terrorist networks.
"They are members of the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB)," said Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan, referring to a group which has been banned in Bangladesh for more than a decade. "They have no connections with the Islamic State (in Iraq and Syria)."
National police chief Shahidul Hoque told reporters that investigators would explore the possibility of "an international link", but added that "primarily, we suspect they are JMB members".
"Five of them were listed as militants and law enforcers made several drives to arrest them," he told reporters in Dhaka late last Saturday.
Mr Khan said all of the attackers were well-educated and most came from wealthy families.
"They are all highly educated young men and went to university. No one is from a madrasah (Islamic religious school)," he added.
Asked why they would have become militants, Mr Khan said: "It has become a fashion."
Six of the gunmen were shot dead by commandos at the final stages of the siege at the Holey Artisan Bakery cafe, but one of the hostage-takers was taken alive and was being interrogated by Bangladeshi intelligence. Two policemen were also shot dead.
Ms Hasina's government has previously blamed a string of deadly attacks against religious minorities and foreigners on domestic opponents, but the latest will heighten fears that ISIS' reach is spreading.
"Islam is a religion of peace. Stop killing in the name of the religion," said Ms Hasina in an impassioned televised address to the nation.
Analysts noted the government has been wary of acknowledging that groups such as ISIS or Al-Qaeda have gained a foothold in Bangladesh over fears that it will frighten off foreign investors.
But analyst Shahedul Anam Khan for the Dhaka-based Daily Star newspaper said the cafe attack meant the government could no longer plausibly deny their presence.
"While one is not sure that these people are organically linked to the international extremist groups, the government must own up to the reality that the footprints of ISIS in this country are very real and no amount of denying can alter the fact," he wrote.
Flags were being flown at half-mast in government offices while prayer services were being held across the country yesterday.
Italy was mourning the loss of nine of its nationals in the attack. Seven Japanese were also killed. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke of his "profound anger that so many innocent people have lost their lives".
The other foreign victims were an American citizen and a 19-year-old Indian national who was studying in California.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS