'Mastermind' of Bangladesh cafe siege killed: police

Dhaka (AFP) - Bangladeshi police shot dead an Islamist extremist accused of being one of the masterminds of last year's deadly siege at a cafe during a pre-dawn raid in Dhaka Friday.

The bodies of Nurul Islam Marzan and another man said to have been behind the murder of a Japanese national in 2015 were found after officers raided a property in the capital's Rayer Bazar neighbourhood, police said.

"?Marzan and his associate Saddam (Hossain) died in an encounter with police,"? Inspector General of Police A.K.M Shahidul Haque told AFP.

"He (Marzan) was the operational commander of the July cafe attack. He was one of the masterminds of it."

Additional deputy commissioner Yusuf Ali told AFP police had found the body of another "suspected extremist" alongside Marzan.

Ali said that Marzan was "one of the masterminds" of the siege at the upmarket Holey Artisan Bakery on July 1 last year in which 18 foreign hostages were shot or hacked to death.

The country's security forces launched a deadly crackdown against Islamist extremists following the attack, which badly undermined Bangladesh's reputation as a relatively moderate Muslim nation.

- Wave of attacks -

Since the siege, security forces have killed around 50 Islamist extremists, including most of the alleged leaders of a homegrown outfit known as Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).

The Islamic State (IS) organisation claimed responsibility for the cafe attack, posting images of the carnage as it happened and photos of the gunmen who had posed with the group's black flag.

But Mohibul Islam Khan, the deputy chief of Dhaka police's counter-terrorism and transnational crime unit, said Marzan was known to be a member of JMB, joining the group after dropping out of Bangladesh's Chittagong University.

"Along with Tamim (Ahmed Chowdhury), Marzan planned the Gulshan attack," he said, referring to the Canadian citizen of Bangladeshi descent who police described as the main mastermind of the siege.

Chowdhury was killed in another raid outside the capital in August last year. Later police also arrested Marzan's wife in a raid in the capital and last month she gave birth to a daughter in custody.

Police intelligence had found that Marzan organised the cafe siege and was its operational commander, said Khan.

Police said the second man, Hossain, was wanted in connection with at least 10 attacks on religious minorities, including the murder of Japanese farmer Kunio Hoshi outside the northern city of Rangpur in late 2015.

He was on the run after being charged with the murders of Hoshi, a Christian convert from Islam, a Hindu priest and a sufi leader, all carried out in northern Bangladesh over the last two years.

Bangladesh is reeling from a wave of attacks on foreigners, rights activists and members of religious minorities.

While many of those attacks have been claimed by IS or Al Qaeda, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's secular government has blamed local militants, denying that international jihadists have gained a foothold in Bangladesh.

Critics say 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 August 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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