DHAKA: Relatives of foreign hostages murdered in a Bangladeshi restaurant were in Dhaka Monday to take their loved ones’ bodies home as authorities made the first arrests over the killings.
Many were in tears as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina laid wreaths on the coffins of those killed in the siege at an upmarket cafe in the capital, by far the deadliest in a spate of recent attacks that have caused international alarm.
They included nine Italians, seven Japanese, a US citizen and a 19-year-old Indian student.
Witnesses say the perpetrators of the attack, which the Islamic State group has claimed, spared the lives of Muslims while herding foreigners to their deaths, killing many with machete-style weapons.
Among the mourners at the ceremony in a Dhaka stadium was Muksedur Rahman who described slain Italian textile trader Nadia Benedetti as a “great human being” who had worked to help Bangladeshi survivors of acid attacks.
“Nadia Benedetti had been working in Bangladesh for more than 20 years,” Rahman, a colleague of the Italian, told AFP.
“I can’t believe she had to die like this. We have to stand against such terrorism right now.”
Italy’s ambassador said Friday night’s attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery cafe was “unprecedented” and promised his country’s full support in tackling a rise in Islamist militancy in Bangladesh.
“This unprecedented attack is also an attack on the very identity of Bangladesh,” Mario Palma told reporters at the ceremony.
“You deserve all the cooperation from your friends all over the world who supported you for your struggle to achieve independence.”
The government said the bodies of the Italians and Japanese victims would be handed over to diplomats later Monday before being flown home.
The Indian student’s body was also being flown back to her home town later on Monday
US Secretary of State John Kerry offered Washington’s support in a telephone call to Hasina, whose government has been unable to stop a wave of Islamist attacks on foreigners and religious minorities in officially secular but mostly Muslim Bangladesh.
“(Kerry) encouraged the government of Bangladesh to conduct its investigation in accordance with the highest international standards and offered immediate assistance from US law enforcement, including the FBI,” said his spokesman John Kirby.
Six suspected jihadists were killed by commandos in the final stages of the siege, but one was taken alive and interrogated by Bangladeshi intelligence.
Bangladesh’s national police chief told reporters on Monday that the captured gunman was one of two people who have now been formally arrested over the hostage siege.
“Two people are in custody. We’ll file a case. We’ll know their identities after they are remanded and questioned,” Police Inspector General Shahidul Hoque said.
The government has repeatedly denied international jihadist networks have a presence in Bangladesh, though the IS-linked news agency Amaq published extensive details of Friday’s attack, including photos from inside the cafe.
Analysts say the government is wary of acknowledging such groups are operating in Bangladesh for fear it could frighten off foreign investors.
But it has been criticised for failing to tackle a rise in Islamist attacks.
Home minister Asaduzzaman Khan told AFP on Sunday the attackers were members of the Jamaeytul Mujahdeen Bangladesh (JMB), a local militant group banned by the government.
He said there were cases against all of them, but denied any intelligence failures ahead of the assault on the cafe, which came after a major crackdown that saw around 11,000 people arrested, some of them known terrorists.
Critics allege the arrests were arbitrary or designed to silence political opponents.
Earlier the transport minister Obaidul Quader said six of the Japanese killed were consultants for Bangladesh capital’s first metro rail, and expressed hope Tokyo’s foreign aid agency would continue its support for the three billion dollar project.
“Japan knows that this attack was part of the global terrorist activities. I hope they’ll understand the reality,” he said.
“There is no question of stopping this project.”