DHAKA, Nov 7, (Agencies): Bangladesh police have arrested seven suspected Islamist militants including four Pakistani nationals, they said Saturday, accusing them of planning to commit acts of violence in the Muslim-majority country. The seven, who were arrested on Friday and later taken to court for interrogation, are suspected of belonging to the banned Islamist group Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), police said. “In primary interrogation, they’ve admitted that they’re activating the operation of the banned JMB. They gathered to commit acts of violence,” a police statement said, adding authorities believed the group was conspiring against the government.
The arrests come as tensions run high in Bangladesh following a spate of targeted killings and fears of mounting Islamist violence in the conservative country of 160 million. Dhaka police spokesman Muntashirul Islam told AFP those arrested included four Pakistani nationals, the first time police have claimed Pakistanis are active in the banned group.
Police said they had seized Pakistani currency and jihadist books from those arrested, including one which spells out punishment for defaming the Prophet Mohammed. JMB militants have been blamed for attacks in recent weeks including slashing the throat of a Christian pastor and a series of murders of Sufi Muslims, who the militants consider as heretics. Bangladesh is also grappling with a series of murders claimed by the Islamic State group (IS) in recent weeks, including the fatal stabbing of a policeman on Wednesday.
IS has also said it was responsible for the murders of an Italian aid worker and a Japanese farmer, as well as a blast at the country’s main Shiite shrine which left two people dead. The government has rejected IS’s claims, saying it does not have a presence in the country. A branch of Al-Qaeda has also claimed responsibility for the murders of four atheist bloggers and machete attacks on publishers in the past year, calling the victims “atheists and blasphemers”. The government, however, has blamed those attacks on local militants, along with the main opposition party and its Islamist ally, for orchestrating violence to destabilise the country.
The home-grown JMB, whose leaders were executed in 2007 over a series of blasts, have been trying to regroup in recent years. The group was set up in late 1990s by Bangladeshi jihadists, some of whom had fought in the Afghan war against the Russians. Bangladesh has given policemen permission to shoot in selfdefence if fired upon, the home minister said on Friday, after a policeman was killed in an attack claimed by Islamic State militants. Until now, policemen at checkpoints and guarding government sites could only fire on the orders of superior officers. In certain circumstances, they needed a magistrate’s permission.
On Wednesday, two men on a motorcycle stabbed a policeman at a checkpoint in Ashulia, about 20 km (13 miles) north of the capital, Dhaka, in an attack that was later claimed by Islamic State. The men fled without the police firing a shot. That killing, attacks last weekend on bloggers critical of religious extremism as well as the killing of two foreigners have raised fears that the jihadist group is targeting its secular democracy.
“We have asked the police to counter any attacks on them. They can open fire immediately for their safety,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan told Reuters. The US-based SITE Intelligence Group said the Islamic State had claimed responsibility for the policeman’s killing. Khan rejected that and pointed instead at the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami. “This is nothing but a plan to destabilise the country and create panic among the police,” he said. No one at Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party in Bangladesh, was available to comment.
A BNP spokesman, Asaduzzaman Ripon, said, “This is nothing but an attempt to repress us and keep us away from politics.” Bangladesh’s government has put several Jamaat-e-Islami leaders on trial on charges of war crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence and believes some of its members are instigating attacks by militant groups. Police said this week that a group called Ansarullah Bangla Team was suspected of being behind Saturday’s attacks on bloggers in Dhaka. On Friday, police detained five activists of Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Chhatra Shibir, the party’s student wing, a police official said.
“All of them were detained with several jihadi books, (Molotov) cocktails and other explosives in the city while they were in a meeting in a building,” Kazi Moinul Islam, officer in charge at the Khilgaon police station, said. He told reporters that the five men were suspected of carrying out attacks that killed two people and wounded dozens as Shi’ite Muslims gathered for a procession in the old part of Bangladesh’s capital on Oct 24 to mark the holy day of Ashura.