Bangladesh marks first anniversary of deadly cafe siege

Unidentified relatives of victims presenting at the site with flower bouquet to mark the first anniversary of the Holey Artisan Bakery attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh on July 1, 2017.
Unidentified relatives of victims presenting at the site with flower bouquet to mark the first anniversary of the Holey Artisan Bakery attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh on July 1, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

DHAKA (AFP) - Hundreds of people gathered on Saturday (July 1) at the site of one of the worst Islamist attacks in Bangladesh's history to mark the first anniversary of the deadly attack on an upscale Dhaka cafe.

Weeping mourners laid flowers outside the old premises of the Holey Artisan Bakery, the cafe which five young men armed with guns and knives stormed into on July 1, 2016, taking dozens hostage and killing 22 people.

Most of the victims were foreigners - mostly Italian and Japanese national - and many were brutally hacked to death.

Since then, the lakeside property has been cordoned off first by police and then by the owners - the bakery itself has reopened at a new, more secure, location.

Amid heavy police security, the two-storey white-painted house was opened up for four hours on Saturday, as top political leaders, the Italian and Japanese ambassadors, and scores of tearful mourners paid tribute to the victims of the siege.

"The memories are painful and awful," Monica Chowdhury, the aunt of one of the victims, Faraaz Hossain, told AFP.

"This is not the true face of Bangladesh. We've lost friends. I've lost my nephew. It hurts deep inside my heart," she said.

Bangladesh's cultural affairs minister Asaduzzaman Nur told reporters that the government had never imagined this kind of attack could occur in the country.

"Bangladesh has a long history of rich culture and liberal practises. This attack was also an attack on our heritage," he said.

Bangladesh is gradually "overcoming the threat" posed by Islamic extremism, he added.

Mourner Husne Ara said that while she had not lost any friends or relatives during the attack, it had shaken her deeply and changed her life.

"The anxiety I feel nowadays when my children go out can't be expressed in words. I pray this kind of incident never repeats," she told AFP.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group immediately claimed the attack but the secular government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has repeatedly denied that ISIS has any presence in the country, instead pinning the blame on homegrown Islamist outfits.

Since the attack, the law enforcement officers have gunned down nearly 70 Islamist extremists across the country including the Bangladeshi-origin Canadian "mastermind" of the cafe siege.