That was just half an hour into the siege that was to escalate into the deadliest hostage crisis in Bangladesh.
Things began to unfold rather quickly from 8:45pm when gunmen entered the premises of Holey Artisan Bakery, an upmarket eatery popular with foreigners and Dhaka’s elite. Witness accounts place eight men at the scene while official announcements account for seven terrorists, of whom 6 were killed and one taken alive.
One of the men went to the pizza shed, one of the later additions to Holey. Another went to the far side of the veranda beside the main restaurant and pointed a gun — an AK 22 according to Saturday’s press briefing — at the chest of a man working there. This young man, Ashraf according to his colleague, told the assailants he was merely an employee and did not know much.
The gunman asked, “Are you Muslim?”
“Yes,” came the frightened reply.
“Then run. Run for your life.”
Ashraf then sprinted towards the fence and climbed over it. The terrorists had apparently locked the main entry immediately after they entered the premises. But Ashraf managed to see from the other side that one terrorist stood at the far side of the veranda where guests could sit down for a meal while others went into the main dining room.
Those six set off bombs and opened fire at random. That bomb and brushfire continued as long as he waited. He managed to flee within the first few minutes of the hostage crisis.
This is approximately when reports of gunshots started coming in from neighbouring buildings and presumably when law enforcers were first notified of gunfire at the heart of Dhaka’s diplomatic zone in Gulshan.
Holey Artisan is at the dead end of Road 79 and borders on the lake on one side. There is a maternity clinic facing it from the other side of the street. The Nordic Club, frequented by diplomats is on the street (Road 80) and the site is barely five minutes away from a number of embassies including those of Germany and Australia.
The police were at the scene within the next half an hour presumably. By 9:30pm there were reports of ‘gunfire exchange’ coming from the area as the police on the scene went into action only to find out they were faced with far better firepower than they had anticipated.
This is also when the Dhaka Tribune first received reports of gunfire exchange and broke the news.
The hostage takers hurled grenades or bombs and fired upon this first group of policemen killing two and wounding many more. It was around 10pm that the reports of law enforcers being mortally wounded started flooding in when bloodied bodies of policemen were loaded on to police vehicles, in front of newsmen and sent off to the nearby United Hospital.
By then throngs of newsmen had gathered on Road 79 near the scene for first-hand accounts from the ground. They soon got confirmation of the deaths of Banani Police Station OC Salauddin Khan. An additional commissioner of the Detective Branch of police (DB), Rabiul Karim, was wounded in the same skirmish and succumbed to his injuries a little later.
It was close to 11pm when a supervisor of the restaurant Sumon Reza spoke on live TV and described how he had escaped. He said he jumped off the roof of the two-storey building and showed his bandaged fingers saying he had gotten hurt in the process.
He said: “The terrorists had stormed into the restaurant shouting ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is great).”
“There were eight of them at most.” He went on to say that the terrorists were dressed to blend in. “Their shirts were all tucked in and they moved about with casual air.” This employee also said there were at least 20 foreigners dining at the restaurant during the time of the siege. A number that proved to be less than what has been accounted for in the official announcements so far.
Chief of the elite crime busting unit Rapid Action Battalion, Benazir Ahmed, a prominent police officer himself, rushed to the spot around 11:20pm and spoke to the media briefly.
Benazir Ahmed told newsmen to refrain from airing live footage as “many others are also watching television.” He said this several times.
The RAB chief said law enforcers were interested to get in touch with the hostage takers to listen to their demands. “We intend to end this matter peacefully,” said Benazir, making it evident that he was in fact addressing the terrorists of his intentions.
By this time the world media had turned their attention to the unfolding scene in Gulshan terming it a grave hostage crisis.
It is presumed that by this time the terrorists had targeted foreigners and executed them in a gruesome manner. According to the official announcements, the recovered bodies bore signs of being slaughtered by sharp weapons.
Photographs tweeted from certain Twitter handles confirmed that executions had taken place.
Around midnight, the US termed the situation “very fluid, very live.”
An hour later, there are reports another group of policemen injured in gunfire. They were sent off to hospital for treatment. >>
Within 10 minutes there is confirmation that DB Assistant Commissioner Rabiul Islam had succumbed to his injuries.
Islamist terrorist organisation ISIS claimed responsibility of the attach around 1:30am.
It was almost 3am when SWAT rescued the restaurant’s Argentine Chef Diego and the in house electrician from an adjacent house.
Within barely a quarter hour, around 3:15am, ISIS claimed 24 deaths and 40 others injured in the attack. There was still no word from the authorities about the casualties or what may have transpired inside the restaurant.
Close to 4am, gunshots were heard from inside the restaurant but the authorities were still keeping mum. Soon, law enforcers were seen taking away an injured man who sources said was a suspect.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal reached the scene around 5am, almost eight hours after events began unfolding.
Law enforcers announced they were ready to launch a rescue operation around 6:15am.
More than an hour later around 7:40am, 1 Para Commando Battalion launched Operation Thunderbolt, which lasted for barely a quarter of an hour rescuing 13 people including three foreigners and killing six terrorists. One was taken alive, according to the official statement made later in the afternoon.
Operation Thurnderbolt officially ended at 8:30am.
By 1pm, rescued hostages were taken to the Detective Branch headquarters for questioning and debriefing.
The chief of military operations of the Bangladesh Army confirmed the death toll for the first time around 1:40pm when he briefed the media in the presence of other officials and thanked the prime minister for her resolve in the face of crisis.
He also commended the law enforcers who took part in the Operation Thunderbolt.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced two days of national mourning in her address to the nation at 7:45pm and urged Bangladeshis to have faith in her government.