|Security forces take position near the attack site in Kishorganj. (ATN News via Reuters)|
Sonia Sarkar in Dhaka, TT, July 7: Militants today attacked policemen guarding Bangladesh’s largest Id congregation in a town 140km from Dhaka, resulting in three deaths just days after last weekend’s restaurant siege in the capital and sending the message that they can attack “anywhere, anytime”.
“First, a café in Dhaka, now an Id prayer ground in Kishorganj…. What next?” said a Dhaka resident, summing up the jittery mood of a country still struggling to believe that one of Islam’s holiest occasions was chosen for the attack.
Security had been bolstered at the historic Sholakia Idgah in Kishorganj town, where 5 lakh devotees had gathered, following the slaughter of 20 people – mostly foreigners – by terrorists in Dhaka’s diplomatic enclave last Friday night.
But half-a-dozen militants pounced on the police around 9am, about 700 metres from the congregation, bursting small bombs and then setting upon them with “sharp weapons”, sources said.
One policeman died by bomb and another by knife while a woman, Jharna Rani Bhoumik, fell to a stray bullet that invaded her hut. Ten cops and several civilians were wounded while one militant was gunned down and another captured with bullet injuries. Some reports said up to three other attackers had been arrested.
Maulana Fariduddin Masud, chairman of the Bangladesh Jamiyatul Ulama who has been leading the prayers at the venue for the past 10 years, told reporters he had been the target “because I had issued a fatwa against militancy”.
On June 18, Masud had led over 1 lakh clerics in condemning terrorism in the name of Islam as ” haram“, prompting radical groups to threaten him.
Legend has it that the ground in Kishorganj was named Sholakia after 1.25 lakh ( showa lakh in Bengali) devotees offered Id prayers there for the first time in 1828. Today’s congregation, more than four times that number, included many from neighbouring countries, including India and Pakistan.
No group had owned responsibility till late tonight, unlike the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, which the Islamic State had claimed quickly.
Yesterday, the Islamic State had issued a chilling new video warning of more attacks in Bangladesh and describing last week’s siege as just “a glimpse”.
“The message was loud and clear – that they can attack any day and at any time,” Brigadier M. Sakhawat Hossain, a Dhaka-based retired officer and security analyst, said.
“They killed people during Ramazan (in Dhaka); we thought they would at least spare Id,” retired government employee Debiprosad Majumdar said in Dhaka, lighting candles at a memorial set up 500 metres from the Holey Artisan Bakery.
“Those carrying out assaults even on Id congregations are enemies of Islam and humanity,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said. “Terrorism will never be tolerated in Bangladesh.”
Maulana Masud appealed to people “not to panic, which will only benefit the militants’ goal”, and instead stay united and “wage a social resistance against the extremists”.
Investigating agencies are probing any possible links between today’s attack and last week’s siege. “Preliminary investigation suggests that the explosive devices used at the Holey Artisan Bakery and at the Sholakia ground have similarities,” a source said.
More than 1,000 policemen had been deployed at the ground, against the usual 200 during Id in other years. About 100 CCTV cameras had been installed.
“I’ve been praying here since I was a child. Now my grandchildren come here to offer prayers,” Habib-ur-Rahman, a 70-year-old resident of Kishorganj, said. “I have witnessed such an incident for the first time. Do the terrorists have no fear that they can strike on Id?”
Id had so far been terror-free in Bangladesh but in 2001, a mass gathering for a Poila Baishakh (Bengali New Year) celebration at Ramna Batamul, Dhaka, was attacked by the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami. Nine people were killed in a series of bomb attacks.
Dhaka, with last week’s attack on its mind, anyway witnessed a subdued Id today.