DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — A group of as many as nine gunmen attacked a restaurant popular with foreigners in a diplomatic zone of the Bangladeshi capital on Friday night, taking hostages and exchanging gunfire with security forces, authorities said.
Authorities said that two officers were killed during a fire fight with the attackers.
The head of the elite anti-crime force, Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB, told reporters Friday night that they were working to save the lives of the people trapped inside the Holey Artisan Bakery. Some foreigners are believed to be among the hostages.
"Some derailed youths have entered the restaurant and launched the attack," Benazir Ahmed said. "We have talked to some of the people who fled the restaurant after the attack. We want to resolve this peacefully. We are trying to talk to the attackers, we want to listen to them about what they want."
A huge contingent of security guards cordoned off the area around the restaurant, trading gunfire with the attackers who set off bombs and exchanged gunfire with the security forces.
"Some of our people have been injured. Our first priority is to save the lives of the people trapped inside," Ahmed said. He would not say how many people were trapped inside.
Sumon Reza, a kitchen staffer who escaped the attack at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka's Gulshan area, told reporters that the attackers were armed with firearms and bombs as they entered the restaurant around 9:20 p.m. Friday and took customers and staffers hostage at gunpoint.
Jamuna Television, quoting Reza, said the attackers chanted "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) as they launched the attack.
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters: "We are aware of reports of what appears to a hostage situation in the Gulshan neighborhood of Dhaka."
Kirby said the embassy has accounted for 100 percent of American citizens that are under the authority of the diplomatic chief of mission in Dhaka. He said he had no more details.
He said it was too early to say who was involved in the assault and their motivation.
Bangladesh, a traditionally moderate Muslim-majority nation, has recently seen an upsurge in militant violence. Nearly two dozen atheist writers, publishers, members of religious minorities, social activists and foreign aid workers have been slain since 2013 by attackers. The frequency of attacks has increased in recent months. On Friday, a Hindu temple worker was hacked to death by at least three assailants in southwest Bangladesh.
The attacks have raised fears that religious extremists are gaining a foothold in the country, despite its traditions of secularism and tolerance.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government has cracked down on domestic radical Islamists. It has accused local terrorists and opposition political parties — especially the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its Islamist ally Jamaat-e-Islami — of orchestrating the violence in order to destabilize the nation, which both parties deny.
The Islamic State group and al-Qaida affiliates have claimed responsibility for many of the attacks but the government denies that either group has a presence in the country.