Bangladesh forces kill 11 suspected Islamist militants

Dhaka (AFP) - Bangladeshi forces Saturday killed 11 suspected Islamist extremists including the new leader of a banned group behind a Dhaka cafe massacre, a minister said.

"Eleven extremists were killed. They are all members of the new JMB (Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh)," Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan told AFP, referring to the outlawed group that killed 22 mostly foreign hostages at the cafe in July.

"The dead included Akash who was leading the new JMB after the death of Tamim Chowdhury," he said, adding seven of the extremists were killed in a gunfight in Patertek, Gazipur district, just outside Dhaka, after they rejected an offer to surrender.

Police said Akash could be a code name for the slain JMB leader.

Chowdhury, a Canadian citizen of Bangladesh origin, was shot dead in a gunfight in August. Police said he was the leader of the JMB and behind the cafe attack.

The siege at Holey Artisan Bakery cafe in Dhaka's posh Gulshan neighbourhood was the deadliest in a series of assaults claimed by Islamist groups which have blighted Bangladesh in the last three years.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, posting photos of the carnage as it happened and pictures of the attackers holding IS flags online.

However, Bangladesh officials have rejected the claims, saying the new JMB led by Tamim was responsible for the bloodbath.

The minister said seven more suspected Islamist extremists were also arrested in raids in two industrial towns just outside the capital after they committed robberies to fund their activities.

"We have seized money from these extremists that they got through robbery," he said.

He told reporters that Syed Ziaul Haque, the leader of another outlawed extremist group called Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) would soon be arrested.

"He is under our surveillance. He'll be arrested anytime," Khan said.

The ABT, also known as Ansar al Islam, is linked with Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and has been blamed for a series of murders of atheist and secular bloggers who were critical of Islam.

- Bangladesh reeling -

Earlier in the day the elite Rapid Action Battalion launched two separate operations after being tipped off about the presence of Islamist extremists in a building in Gazipur, just outside Dhaka, and a three-storey structure in the northern district of Tangail.

"Four extremists were shot dead during a gunfight with the RAB in the two places. They are new JMB members," RAB spokesman Mufti Mahmud Khan told AFP.

In the Tangail raid the RAB said the extremists fired at them from their hideout after shouting Allahu Akbar (Allah is the greatest), prompting officers to fire back.

"Two of our officers were injured during the gunfight," local RAB chief Mohiuddin Faruqe told AFP.

Long dormant after their top leaders were executed in March 2007, the JMB has recently regrouped with young, university-educated extremists taking the helm.

Bangladesh has been reeling from a deadly wave of attacks in the last three years including on foreigners, rights activists and members of the country's religious minorities.

Critics say Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's administration is in denial about the nature of the threat posed by Islamist extremists and accuse her of trying to exploit the attacks to demonise her domestic opponents.

Last month US Secretary of State John Kerry said during a visit to Dhaka that there was evidence to link the extremists behind the recent spate of deadly attacks in Bangladesh to IS.

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