US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Bangladesh, meets PM after extremist attacks

US Secretary of State John Kerry gestures as he arrives at Dhaka airport on Aug 29, 2016.
US Secretary of State John Kerry gestures as he arrives at Dhaka airport on Aug 29, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

DHAKA (AFP) - United States Secretary of State John Kerry held talks with Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on combatting extremism on Monday (Aug 29) as the police killed members of an Islamist group blamed for a deadly cafe siege.

After weekend talks in Geneva on Syria, Mr Kerry arrived in the capital Dhaka for his first official visit to deepen cooperation between the two countries including on economic development and human rights.

But the one-day trip is expected to focus on mounting concerns of Islamist violence in the impoverished nation, after gunmen last month attacked an upscale cafe in Dhaka and killed 22 people, mainly foreigners.

"Let me say what a great pleasure it is to be with the prime minister and to be here in Bangladesh," Mr Kerry said of his meeting with Ms Hasina and other top officials.

Just hours before Mr Kerry's arrival, Bangladesh police shot dead two suspected members of the local Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) extremist group blamed for the cafe siege.

The suspected militants, including a regional JMB commander, were killed during a gunbattle with security officers in the northern town of Sherpur town, a police spokesman said.

"They were declared dead after being brought to a local hospital," spokesman Gaziur Rahman told AFP.

The shootings came just two days after police killed the suspected mastermind of the cafe attack during a gunbattle outside Dhaka. Police named the suspect as JMB leader Tamim Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi-born Canadian.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the July 1 cafe attack in which gunmen held hostage mainly Western diners including one American, before killing them.

Ms Hasina's government denies the ISIS group has a presence in Bangladesh, instead blaming the JMB and other local militant groups for a recent wave of bloodshed.

Critics say Ms Hasina's administration has been in denial about the nature of the threat posed by extremists and accuse her of trying to exploit the attacks to demonise her domestic opponents.

Police have conducted a series of raids on suspected militant hideouts since the cafe attack that have killed at least 26 extremists.

The United States and Bangladesh have a "long-standing partnership" with "programmes in place for many, many years that deal with counter-terrorism and security partnership", a US State Department senior official said ahead of Mr Kerry's arrival.

Bangladeshi officials have also briefed that tackling extremism would be the main focus of the talks, with the Daily Star newspaper running the headline "Fighting Terrors Tops Agenda" on its front-page.

Talks between the two countries have intensified in recent months, the US official said, with the US engaging with Bangladesh police and the military charged with tackling extremists.

Bangladesh has been reeling from a series of attacks in the last three years, including on foreigners, rights activists and members of religious minorities in the Muslim-majority nation.

Mr Kerry is due to meet with civic leaders as well as embattled Bangladesh opposition leader Khaleda Zia, a bitter rival of Hasina.

Ms Hasina's government has launched a major crackdown on Ms Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party which it accuses of orchestrating a wave of deadly street violence last year in a bid to force the premier to resign.

Mr Kerry will fly to neighbouring India later on Monday to take part in a regular India-US strategic dialogue on economic cooperation and security issues.

He will hold talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, amid rising tensions in the disputed region of Kashmir which is divided between India and its rival northern neighbour Pakistan.