Six killed as Bangladesh police raid Islamist hideouts

Bangladesh has suffered a spate of deadly attacks on secular activists, foreigners and religious minorities in recent years

Five suspected militants and a young boy were killed Thursday as Bangladesh police conducted a series of raids on what they said were extremist hideouts following a series of deadly Islamist attacks in the country.

Police stormed a building in the southern port city of Chittagong overnight, sparking a 15-hour stand-off with militants armed with guns and grenades with around 20 civilians trapped inside.

Four members of the homegrown extremist group Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) including one woman died in that operation, police said. At least two were killed by a suicide explosion that they set off.

"They came out in the stairs and carried out a big explosion. Parts of their bodies were spread to 25-30 yards (metres)," said Sanwar Hossain, additional deputy commissioner of the police counter-terrorism unit.

Police later found the body of a young boy as they searched the flat, senior officer Rezaur Rahman told AFP.

A sixth person died in a separate raid in an eastern border town. Police identified him as a member of the banned Jihadist group Harkat-ul Jihad al Islam, which was blamed for a series of deadly blasts more than a decade ago.

Bangladeshi security forces launched a nationwide crackdown following a deadly siege at a cafe in Dhaka last year, arresting scores of suspected extremists and killing the leaders of homegrown militant cells.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, in which 22 people including 18 foreign hostages were killed in July.

The Bangladeshi government however has said a new faction of the JMB was behind that and other attacks on foreigners and religious minorities in the country.

- IS 'expanding to Asia' -

Police have this month carried out a series of raids in the Chittagong region after detaining two militants with grenades this month on the Dhaka-Chittagong highway.

Additional superintendent of police Mosiuddowla Reza told AFP elite counter-terrorism police reinforcements were sent to the area from the capital after midnight to storm the compound where the four died.

He said the suspects threw grenades and opened fire on police, injuring two.

Twenty people were trapped inside the building overnight after police cordoned it off, but all have now left safely.

Police also raided a second suspected hideout in the area where they arrested a husband and wife who they said were JMB members.

"One tried to blow herself up before she was taken into custody," Reza told AFP.

"We arrested them as the wife was holding her three-month-old child in one hand and tried to explode the suicide vest with the other," he said.

"Our bomb disposal unit later defused the vest."

Japanese and Italian diners were among the 18 foreigners shot and hacked to death in last year's attack on the Holey Bakery, a cafe popular with foreigners.

The siege badly undermined Bangladesh's reputation as a relatively moderate Muslim nation and raised fears for the garment industry, one of the country's biggest sources of foreign investment.

Last August John Kerry, then US Secretary of State, said there was evidence to link the extremists behind the recent spate of deadly attacks in Bangladesh to IS.

Critics accuse Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's secular government of using that and other attacks on foreigners and religious minorities to demonise her domestic opponents.

Terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna said the government should admit that IS has a presence in the country.

"With IS expanding to Asia, sooner or later the government will have to reveal the truth," said Gunaratna, head of the Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, in comments emailed to AFP.