Two militants were killed during the army-led operation inside the terror den at Atia Mahal in Sylhet yesterday, as the raid to take on the terrorists holed up there entered its third day, making it one of the longest anti-terror operations.
However, the operation codenamed “Operation Twilight” was far from over as more militants were believed to be still inside the five-storey apartment.
The Para Commandos are taking time because of the high risk involved as the militants have planted a huge stash of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in the building, mostly on the ground floor and the staircase, the army said.
“We have seen that two militants were killed. We assume there might be one or more militants in there,” said Brig Gen Fakhrul Ahsan, who briefed reporters about the operation in the afternoon yesterday.
“They [militants] are well-trained and equipped,” Fakhrul said, adding that the terrorists knew well how to make a place inaccessible. “That's why it is taking time to complete the operation.”
One of the two militants killed detonated his suicide vest after being shot by the commandos, he added.
Explaining how well-trained the terrorists are, Fakhrul said when the commandos charged grenades at the militants, they lobbed those back at the troops. The terrorists also lit fire to protect themselves from teargas.
This means, the militants are trained to cope with such military operations.
“We will finish it off,” he said, but could not spell out how long it would take to end the standoff, which began around 1:30am on Friday when police first cordoned off the building in the city's Shibbari area.
Before the briefing, one police source told The Daily Star that there might be four to five militants, including a woman, inside the apartment, which has about 150 rooms in some 30 flats.
The army took over the charge of the operation from police on Saturday morning. On the first day of its operation, the army evacuated 78 residents from the building.
Amid the commando operation on Saturday evening, two powerful bombs went off at two separate places near the hideout, killing two police officials and four civilians and injuring over 40 others, including police and Rab members as well as journalists.
Terror group Islamic State took credit for the twin bomb attacks, US-based SITE Intelligence said, citing the the militant outfit's Amaq news agency.
The police force has been advised to stay alert and step up security at police stations, police boxes and other important establishments across the country in the wake of the bomb attacks.
Taking to reporters for the first time since the standoff began, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said a top militant leader might be inside the den.
“The operation is still underway. Nothing can be confirmed until it ends. But it seems there is a top militant leader,” he told reporters in the capital yesterday, without naming any militant group.
He reiterated that there was no IS operatives in the country. “We are yet to trace anyone here who belongs to the IS.”
All this comes in the wake of two suspected suicide bombings -- one inside a Rab barrack in the capital and the other near a police checkpoint near the Dhaka airport -- within a week. In both cases, only the suspected suicide bombers have died and IS claimed responsibility for both.
The raid on Atia Mahal also comes a week after police busted two militant hideouts in Chittagong. In one of the raids in the port city's Sitakunda on March 16, four militants, including a woman, were killed. The woman was wearing a suicide vest, police said.
The sudden escalation of violence comes nearly a year after the Gulshan siege in which militants killed 20 hostages, 17 of them foreigners. The 12-hour standoff ended when army commandos stormed the café, Holey Artisan, and killed the five militants.
Since yesterday morning, law enforcers cordoned off not only Shibbari area but a good five kilometre radius of Atia Mahal.
People in those areas could not go about their daily business or buy essentials, including food. Many shops remained closed and traffic was thin.
The district administration imposed Section 144 in the area, to prevent gathering of more than five people in any one place.
The first of the gunshots were heard around 9:50am and they lasted about five minutes. A huge explosion rocked the area around 10:04am amid firing for about 20 minutes.
Between 11:10am and 11:45am, two more explosions took place while the firing continued.
After a pause for about two hours, fresh firing began around 2:20pm, followed by another huge explosion around 2:50pm.
Army troops took position on the north and the south side of the building while the commandos were on the back side.
An armoured vehicle was positioned at the entrance of the building.
Police members were providing support to the troops.
Briefing reporters around 5:30pm at an open field some 400 yards from the den, Brig Gen Fakhrul said the main objective of their operation was to rescue the residents safely and that the commandos accomplished that job at the quickest possible time. “Our next target was to neutralise the militants, keeping our men safe. There is no hurry for that. For this reason, we are approaching carefully using various techniques.
“We employed different methods since the morning [yesterday]. First we used rocket launchers to create a big hole in the building. Then we used explosives. But those did not work that well.”
Then the commandos used teargas shells, when the militants started moving inside the building.
“When two of them were running away on the ground floor, we fired at them and they collapsed. One of them detonated a suicide vest tied up with his body.”
He suspects both the dead are male.
Asked if the troops faced any resistance, he said the militants fired shots with small arms and threw explosives and IEDs.
However, no member of the force was hurt yesterday, he said.
On Saturday, two injured army members were seen being taken, presumably for treatment, in an ambulance, though there was no official confirmation.
Replying to a query, he said there might also be female militant/s inside the den.
On the first day of the police operation codenamed Spring Rain, police on Friday asked the militants to surrender using a loudspeaker.
At this, one woman shouted back around 1:30pm from a window of the flat: “Bring SWAT quickly because you [police] won't be able to do anything to us… We don't have much time.”
Police officers were also heard calling her by Marjina, though it was not clear how they learned her name.
About the operation to rescue the tenants, Fakhrul said they entered the building using ladders from the adjacent building. Before evacuating the the residents of the fourth floor, they blocked the third floor to prevent militant attack.
Applying the same strategy, they rescued the residents of the third, second and first floor.
It's not clear if there are tenants on the ground floor where the militants are believed to be.