Bangladesh tries eight over deadly cafe attack

Dhaka (AFP) –


Eight alleged Islamist extremists went on trial in Bangladesh on Monday over a savage 2016 attack claimed by Islamic State that killed 22 people including 18 foreigners at a Dhaka cafe popular with Westerners.

Prosecutors say that the eight members of a homegrown extremist outfit were "associates" of the five attackers killed when police stormed the Holey Artisan Bakery cafe.

The eight, who face the death penalty if convicted, "helped mastermind the attack and supplied arms and ammunition," prosecutor Jahangir Alam Chowdhury told AFP.

Six defendants were present with two having absconded. More than 200 witnesses have been called in a special anti-terrorism court in the old part of the capital Dhaka under tight security.

The brazen assault in July 2016 saw young men armed with assault rifles and machetes lay siege to the cafe in Dhaka's well-heeled Gulshan neighbourhood.

In addition to 22 civilians, two policemen were killed. Military commandos took over the cafe after a 10-hour standoff and freed more than two dozen hostages.

The attack claimed by the Islamic State group fuelled tensions over Islamist extremism in the Muslim-majority nation of 165 million people in South Asia.

Police have said the aim of the attack was to destabilise the country and turn it into a militant state.

Eight others -- including the attack's mastermind Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury, a Canadian of Bangladesh descent -- were killed during raids in Dhaka and its suburbs months after the incident.

They included commanders of a new faction of the homegrown extremist group Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) that police blamed for the attack.

The government has repeatedly denied that international jihadist networks have a presence in Bangladesh.

The IS-linked news agency Amaq however published extensive details of the attack, including gory images from inside the cafe.

The hostage crisis marked an escalation from a spate of murders claimed by IS and Al-Qaeda of atheist writers, rights activists, gays, foreigners and religious minorities since 2013.

It was seen as a major blow to the country's image as a moderate Muslim nation.