Heavy gunfire, explosions ring out as Bangladesh security forces move to free hostages

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DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Heavy gunfire and explosions rang out Saturday morning as Bangladesh security forces backed by armored vehicles moved to end a 10-hour standoff with heavily armed militants holding dozens of people hostage, including foreigners, after storming an upscale restaurant at the heart of Bangladesh’s diplomatic zone.

Two police officers were killed and at least 26 people wounded in an earlier gunbattle.

It was earlier reported that Japanese citizens were possibly among the 35 hostages.

Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said at a hastily called news conference Saturday morning in Tokyo that the government is trying to confirm the information.

The Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency said the attack on the restaurant was carried out by “Islamic State commandos,” according to the SITE Intelligence Group which monitors jihadist activity. Bangladesh authorities did not immediately respond to the claim.

According to internet service provider Aamr, authorities also ordered internet services to be blocked across the country.

A member of the Rapid Action Battalion, identifying himself as Lt. Col. Masood, told Indian TV that he attackers “have not responded to authorities’ calls for negotiation.”

He says a police cordon would prevent any of the attackers from escaping.

The U.S. State Department says it has seen the claims of responsibility by the Islamic State group for the hostage-taking in Dhaka but cannot yet confirm it.

A White House official said President Obama was briefed on the attack by his chief counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco. The president asked to be kept informed as the situation develops, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the president’s meetings.

State Department spokesman John Kirby says the U.S. is in contact with the Bangladesh government and has offered its assistance to bring those responsible to justice.

He said all official American personnel are accounted for with no injuries reported, and the department is working with local authorities to determine if any U.S. citizens and locally-employed staff were affected.

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