Three suspects were killed as police raided an extremist den in northeast Bangladesh but it was unclear how they died, authorities indicated in announcing an end to their latest counter-terrorist operation on Saturday.
The two-day Operation Maximus, in Moulvibazar town, was one of four counter-terrorist raids targeting suspected hideouts of militant group Neo-JMB in the northeastern districts of Moulvibazar, Sylhet and Comilla within the past eight days.
Twenty-one people overall – among them 10 militants, three law enforcement officers and four children – died during the raids and in bomb blasts near the raid in Sylhet last weekend. The various operations took place amid a cycle of violence by Islamic extremists during the past month, which included two suicide-bomb attacks near Dhaka’s international airport in one week.
After police suspended the operation in the Borohat neighborhood of Moulvibazar town on Friday night, the suspects who were holed up inside a duplex building set off explosives, the head of the Bangladeshi police’s counter-terrorist branch told reporters.
“After we [suspended] yesterday's raid, the militants exploded two bombs. We saw smoke coming out from the den and thought they might have blown themselves up,” Monirul Islam said during a Saturday afternoon press briefing in Moulvibazar town that followed the operation’s conclusion and was broadcast live on private TV stations.
The operation had resumed on Saturday morning.
“We have entered the building. There were dead bodies of two men and one woman,” he added.
It was unclear whether the three had blown themselves up or were killed by police gunfire, Agence France-Presse quoted Islam as saying.
When SWAT team members tried to enter the building on Friday, the suspects, who had stockpiled a large quantity of explosives, detonated some of them, Islam said then.
“We are relieved that they are finished. We do not know many more are still undetected. Thanks to the police that they made us safe,” Md Shahabuddin, a resident of Borohat, told BenarNews by phone.
The death toll from last weekend’s raid and bombings in Sylhet included a suspect identified by police as Mainul Islam (alias Musa), the alleged new commander of Neo-JMB, and Lt. Col. Abul Kalam Azad, the chief of the intelligence wing of Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB).
One of the three militants who died during the operation in Borohat was involved in twin bomb attacks that occurred on the sidelines of the Sylhet raid and killed Azad, two police officers and four other people, Monirul Islam said on Saturday.
“We are almost sure that one of the dead men was directly involved in the attacks in Sylhet. [He is] responsible for the death of seven people. We had the desire to hang him, but we could not,” Islam said.
Police did not release the names of the three dead suspects.
Meanwhile, in Comilla district, about 160 km (100 miles) away, officers recovered eight bombs and two suicide vests at another suspected Neo-JMB den, and a bomb squad deactivated these during a post-raid clean-up operation on Saturday morning, police said. The raid in Comilla took place on Friday but the two suspects had fled.
The raids in Bohorat and Comilla were launched a day after police found the bodies of seven people, including four children, while raiding a suspected militant den in Nasirpur, a village in Kahilipur union parishad, in the Moulvibazar Sadar upazila (sub-district). At first, police said that as many as eight bodies had been found but they have since revised the figure.
The adults – a man and two women – were militants who blew themselves and the four children up as police stormed their hideout, Monirul Islam told reporters Saturday.
“These people are simply monsters. You see, they assembled together their children and detonated the suicide vests. They killed their own children. They are not human beings. They are the enemies of Islam,” Islam said.
According to the counter-terrorist police chief, the 10 suspected militants who died in Sylhet and Moulvibazar districts all belonged to Neo-JMB, a faction of Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Bangladeshi authorities have blamed Neo-JMB for carrying out the nation’s deadliest attack – a terrorist siege at a café in Dhaka during which 20 hostages, mostly foreigners, were cut to pieces with machetes in July 2016.
Since the siege at the Holey Artisan Bakery, police and security forces have launched a bloody crackdown on Islamic extremists and made few arrests. Including the past week’s four counter-terrorist operations, at least 59 suspected militants have been killed in raids, gunfights with security forces and suicide attacks.
According to retired Brig. Gen. Sakhawat Hossain, a Bangladeshi security expert, militants are willing to die rather than surrender.
“They want to show that they must not now bow down to the law enforcers whom they hate. You have to remember, they are out to die,” Hossain told BenarNews.