Suspected militants at Moulvibazar's Borohat den held their ground by putting up a defiant resistance throughout the day yesterday, forcing police to eventually suspend their operation as soon as dark fell.
Counterterrorism officials said there might be four to five militants, including a woman, with a huge stash of explosives at the hideout. One of them is probably an Afghan-trained expert bomb maker, who is known in terror circles as “Boro Bhai” (big brother).
Police originally cordoned off the duplex building around 1:30am on Wednesday and a SWAT team launched an assault codenamed “Operation Maximus” yesterday. Maximus is a Latin term for “greatest”.
However, whenever the special force tried to close in on the hideout, the militants pushed them back by exploding bombs, said Monirul Islam, chief of Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit of Dhaka Metropolitan Police.
“There are many rooms in the house and explosives are planted here are there, making the operation complicated,” said Monirul, briefing reporters some 250 metres from the scene in the evening.
The operation will resume this morning and may take some time to complete, he said.
Meanwhile, police found no one inside a suspected terror den in Comilla that they cordoned off Wednesday afternoon.
Police claimed the militants fled the house sensing their presence. They also claimed to have found two bombs, four grenades and two suicide vests.
Earlier on Thursday, police ended another operation at Moulvibazar's Nasirpur, some 20km from Borohat. They found body parts of seven to eight people, including those of four children. Police claimed they were “Neo JMB” militants who blew themselves up to avoid arrests.
The offensive led by the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) began around 8:00am yesterday.
Throughout the day sounds of sporadic gunshots and explosions were heard around the building in Moulvibazar Sadar.
There is no eyewitness account as residents of nearby areas were evacuated over the last two days. Restriction on gatherings and public movement -- Section 144 -- was clamped on Wednesday.
Journalists were not allowed within some 250 metres of the building.
An official of Moulvibazar Police Station said the glass windows of the under-construction building didn't shatter even after heavy gunfire. The bullets did penetrate the “highly protected” and non-transparent glass windows but lost force and direction once inside.
A constable named Kawsar was injured after being hit by a bullet shell. He was seen being taken in an ambulance for treatment.
“As you may have heard, there were some blasts. They [militants] exploded the bombs. Whenever our SWAT members tried to get in, they exploded bombs. It seems they have a huge stash,” Monirul said.
He added Kawsar's injury was minor. "Other than him, all members of the law enforcement agencies are safe and sound.”
Earlier in the afternoon, the SWAT team unhinged the building's gate by tying ropes to it and pulling it with a vehicle, said a counterterrorism official who took part in the operation.
An armoured vehicle and a team of SWAT men on foot then approached the opening. One officer saw someone inside the building and opened fire. But the SWAT men aren't sure if the bullets hit the target.
Police said the militants exploded most of the bombs inside the building.
The operation was postponed around 7:00pm, but explosions and gunshots were heard even hours later.
Earlier on Wednesday, when police cordoned off the building, a woman opened a window and threw a grenade at police but the grenade did not explode.
About the “expert bomb maker,” one counterterrorism official told The Daily Star that they learnt about him from Sitakunda of Chittagong where police busted two hideouts earlier this month.
Another official said the militants had plenty of time to prepare while the SWAT men were busy with "Operation Hit Back" in Nasirpur.
Monirul had earlier said a small team of the counterterrorism unit with the help of Moulvibazar police started working in the area on Tuesday night, tracing links to the two explosions during the army-led raid at Atia Mahal in Sylhet last Saturday.
Islamic State took credit for the twin bombings that killed seven people -- four civilians, two police officers and a top Rab official. Police have yet to name any suspect for the attack.
OPERATION STRIKE OUT IN COMILLA
The SWAT-led operation codenamed “Operation Strike Out” started at 9:00am and was suspended in the afternoon after it emerged there was no one inside.
Addressing a press briefing in the afternoon, Shafiqul Islam, deputy inspector general of Chittagong range police, said, “We were late to locate the house. When we located it and contacted the owner, he said one of the two boys living there was outside the house. When he [owner] left the house he saw the other one sleeping.
“Based on this information, we locked the room, where he was supposed to be sleeping, from outside.”
The militant must have fled before police reached there, said Comilla Police Superintendent Abid Hasan.
Police had been looking for the den since morning and was able to find it around 2:00pm on Wednesday, he added.
“We went to the roof of the three-storey building with the help of fire service. And then came down to the first floor. After a search there, we came to the ground floor…. We didn't find the militant we were looking for,” said Shafiqul.
The two police believed were hiding there are Anas alias Anis, 20, of Noakhali and Rony, 23, he added.
Doctors yesterday confirmed that four of the seven who died during an operation at Nasirpur are children.
The rest three were adults, said sources at Moulvibazar General Hospital, where the autopsies were done.
They all may have been killed in suicide explosions.
There were pieces of wires on the bodies of the three grownups, two of whom were women, Partha Sharathi Datta, superintendent of the hospital, said yesterday.