Daring ambush fails to free top Bangladeshi militant

Mufti Abdul Hannan (pictured, C), the leader of Bangladeshi group Harkatul Jihad Al Islami, was sentenced to death in 2008 for his role in several atrocities

Suspected Islamist militants hurled bombs at a prison van in a daring attempt to free Bangladesh's most-wanted militant leader from death row, police said Tuesday.

Police arrested a 24-year-old man at the scene and launched a hunt for his accomplices after the gang threw bombs at the van carrying Mufti Abdul Hannan in the town of Tongi just outside Dhaka on Monday.

"Their aim was to snatch Mufti Hannan," local police chief Firoz Talukder told AFP, referring to the high-profile ringleader of the Harkatul Jihad Al Islami group.

Several of the bombs went off but the van was able to return to prison with Hannan and 18 other prisoners, he added.

Police recovered a range of weapons from the scene, including a grenade and molotov cocktails, along with a pistol and butcher's knife.

The man captured following the brazen attack was a former student at an Islamic boarding school, police said.

In a separate incident Tuesday, two men described as Islamist extremists attacked a police checkpoint in the eastern town of Chandina.

"They shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) and hurled two homemade bombs at police during a routine check," local police chief Nasiruddin Mridha told AFP.

"We fired back with shotguns and arrested both as they tried to escape," he said, adding the pair were injured in the firefight.

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

Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group have claimed responsibility in some cases but Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's secular government has pinned the blame on local outfits.

Security forces launched a crackdown on extremists following a shooting at a Dhaka cafe last year in which 22 people, including 18 foreign hostages, were killed by gunmen.

Police have since arrested scores of suspected extremists and killed several top leaders of homegrown militant cells.

Hannan was sentenced to death in 2008 for his role in several atrocities, including a grenade attack that wounded the then-British high commissioner, and could be executed within months.

He led a campaign of deadly bombings in Bangladesh in the mid-1990s, masterminding attacks on churches, secular gatherings and mosques used by Islam's minority sects.

By the time he was arrested in late 2005, more than 100 people had been killed in attacks he orchestrated across the moderate Muslim-majority nation.

Hannan fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan before returning to join Harkatul Jihad Al Islami, a group founded for jihadists who fought in that war.

It was the first Islamist militant outfit to emerge in Bangladesh, and rose to prominence as Hannan escalated its deadly operations under his leadership.