DHAKA, Bangladesh – The hostages were given a test: Recite verses from the Quran, or be punished, according to a witness. Those who passed were allowed to eat. Those who failed were tortured and slain.
The dramatic, 10-hour hostage crisis that gripped Bangladesh’s diplomatic zone ended Saturday morning with at least 28 dead, including six of the attackers, as commandos raided the popular restaurant where heavily armed attackers were holding dozens of foreigners and Bangladeshis prisoner while hurling bombs and engaging in a gunbattle with security forces. The victims included 20 hostages, mostly foreigners, and two Bangladeshi police officers.
The attack marks an escalation in militant violence that has hit the traditionally moderate Muslim-majority nation with increasing frequency in recent months, with the extremists demanding the secular government revert to Islamic rule. Most previous attacks have involved machete-wielding men singling out individual activists, foreigners and religious minorities.
But Friday night’s attack was different, more coordinated, with the attackers brandishing assault rifles as they shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) and stormed the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka’s Gulshan area while dozens of foreigners and Bangladeshis were dining out during the Ramadan holy month.
The gunmen, initially firing blanks, ordered restaurant workers to switch off the lights, and they draped black cloths over closed-circuit cameras, according to a survivor. He and others, including kitchen staff, managed to escape by running to the rooftop or out the back door.
But about 35 were trapped inside, their fate depending on whether they could prove themselves to be Muslims, according to the father of a Bangladeshi businessman who was rescued Saturday morning along with his family.
“The gunmen asked everyone inside to recite from the Quran,” according to Rezaul Karim, describing what his son, Hasnat, had witnessed inside. “Those who recited were spared. The gunmen even gave them meals last night.”
The others, he said, “were tortured.”
Detectives were questioning his son and his family along with other survivors as part of the investigation on Saturday, as scattered details of the siege emerged. Authorities were also interrogating one of the attackers captured by commandos in dramatic morning rescue.
It was not immediately clear whether the attackers had a specific goal, and Bangladesh authorities would not say if they had made any demands.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility, saying it targeted the citizens of “Crusader countries” in the attack, warning that citizens of such countries would not be safe “as long as their warplanes kill Muslims.” The statement was circulated Friday by IS supporters on the Telegram messaging service and resembled previous statements by IS. It was not immediately clear if its leadership in Syria and Iraq was involved in planning the attack. The Amaq news agency, affiliated with IS, also posted photos purportedly showing hostages’ bodies, though the authenticity of the images could not be confirmed.
The government did not directly comment on the IS claim but has denied in the past that the extremist group has a presence in Bangladesh. The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has instead accused her political enemies of orchestrating the violence in order to destabilize the nation – which the opposition denies.
On Saturday, Amaq published photos of five smiling young men, whom the agency identified as the attackers, each holding what appear to be assault rifles and posing in front of a black IS flag, according to the SITE Intelligence Service, which monitors jihadi online activity. They were identified by noms de guerre indicating that they were all Bangladeshis. Amaq said the fighters used “knives, cleavers, assault rifles and hand grenades.”
Amaq said the attackers “verified” the identities of the hostages, sparing the Muslims and killing the foreigners.
The 20 hostages killed included nine Italians, seven Japanese, three Bangladeshis and one Indian, government sources said, as details of the bloodshed began trickling from other capitals worldwide.
Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., said two of its students were killed in the attack: Abinta Kabir, of Miami, Fla., a sophomore at the school’s Oxford, Ga., campus who was visiting family and friends in Bangladesh, and Faraaz Hossain, of Dhaka, a junior at the university’s Goizueta Business School.
“All the hostages were killed last night. The terrorists used sharp weapons to kill them brutally,” said Brig. Gen. Nayeem Ashfaq Chowdhury of the Army Headquarters in a news conference Saturday night.
Two Bangladeshi police officers also died from injuries suffered while exchanging gunfire with the attackers Friday night.
Italy’s soccer players wore black armbands in a sign of mourning during Saturday’s European Championship quarterfinals match against Germany.