Bangladeshi police shot dead the pizza chef of a Dhaka restaurant, mistakenly thinking he was one of the militants who killed 20 people, and misread online warnings of an impending assault, police and government officials said on Tuesday.
New details from interviews with the officials and the first information report registered at a Dhaka police station painted a picture of security agencies slow to deal with the attack on Friday last week, one of the nation’s deadliest.
“This was the first time in Bangladesh such a thing had taken place. Nobody was prepared for it. They did not realize the gravity of the situation initially,” said H.T. Imam, a political adviser to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. “Initial response was slow.”
Bangladeshi authorities who monitor social media saw several messages on Friday posted on Twitter saying there would be an attack, Imam said, but the police thought any attack was more likely to target embassies and major hotels and restaurants.
Police closed major hotels and eateries in and around the Westin hotel, about 1km from the Holey Artisan Bakery and O’Kitchen, the restaurant that was attacked, he said.
“They [the police] didn’t think at all it can be this place,” Imam said. “It is to be investigated whether there was an intelligence failure.”
The attack, claimed by the Islamic State group, marked a major escalation in the scale and brutality of violence aimed at forcing strict Islamic rule in Bangladesh, which is mostly Muslim.
Police named five Bangladeshi gunmen who stormed the restaurant: Nibras Islam, Rohan Imtiaz, Meer Saameh Mubasheer, Khairul Islam and Shafiqul Islam. Several other people have been arrested.
The attackers separated foreigners from locals and most of the dead were foreigners, from Italy, Japan, India and the US, but survivors told local television that Muslims who could not recite the Koran were also killed.
The targeting of foreigners has unsettled the nation’s US$26 billion garment export industry, with some foreign retailers suspending all business travel to the nation.
The bodies of the nine Italian victims were flown to Rome on Tuesday. Investigators there are looking into whether Italians were specifically targeted, a judicial source said.
Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Paolo Gentiloni, who went to Rome’s Ciampino airport for the plane’s arrival, said he was committed to making sure the victims received state assistance in line with Italian law, which also provides for their families.
The Islamic State and al-Qaeda have claimed a series of killings of liberals and members of religious minorities in Bangladesh in the past year. The government has dismissed those claims.
Bangladeshi police believe that Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, an outlawed domestic group that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, played a significant role in organizing the privileged and educated young attackers.
Confusion over exactly how many gunmen were involved was at least partly cleared up on Tuesday, when police named Saiful Islam Chowkidar, a pizza maker at the Holey Artisan Bakery, as among the six people security forces killed when they stormed the building to end a 12-hour standoff.
“He may not be involved,” said Saiful Islam, a police official investigating the attack.
An employee at the cafe, shown a photograph of a man killed at the eatery and wearing a chef’s outfit, identified him as Chowkidar and said he had worked there for 18 months.
At least three Bangladeshis were also murdered during the assault. One was a Muslim woman, a regular at the restaurant who did not wear the Islamic veil, whose throat was slashed when she refused to recite the Koran, Imam said.
Two police officers were killed outside the restaurant.
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