Bangladesh arrests Islamist militants over bomb plot, seizes explosives

DHAKA (Reuters) - Officials of Bangladesh’s anti-terrorism unit on Monday detained five suspected members of a banned Islamist militant group for planning attacks during celebrations of the Bengali New Year next month, a spokesman said.

Muslim-majority Bangladesh has experienced a surge in Islamist violence, targeting liberal activists, members of minority Muslim sects and other religious groups.

The five members of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh were arrested in an overnight raid on the outskirts of the capital, Dhaka, said Mizanur Rahman Bhuiya, spokesman of the country’s Rapid Action Battalion, drawn from its police and military.

“Acting on a tip-off, the Rapid Action Battalion arrested them from an apartment,” he said, adding that a large quantity of gel explosives and other bomb-making materials were seized.

He said the group had been planning to target celebrations of Bengali New Year, the biggest event in the moderate Muslim nation of 160 million.

At least five militants of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen have been killed in shootouts since November, as security forces have stepped up the crackdown on Islamist militants looking to establish a sharia-based Islamic state.

The group has designated no representatives to provide comment.

Celebrations of Bengali New Year in April 2001 were marred by bomb blasts in Dhaka set off by another militant group, Harkat-ul Jihad Islami, which killed at least 10 people.

In 2005, the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen set off nearly 500 bombs almost simultaneously on a single day, including in Dhaka. Subsequent suicide attacks on courthouses by its militants killed 25 people and injured hundreds.

The group, thought to have been lying low since six of its top leaders were hanged in 2007, is blamed for a spate of recent attacks, including the shooting of three foreigners, two of whom died.

Militant group Islamic State has claimed responsibility for some recent attacks, including the killing of a Hindu priest last month, but the government denies it has a presence in Bangladesh.

Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Clarence Fernandez