DHAKA: There is "evidence" to link the ISIS with militants in Bangladesh, US Secretary of State John Kerry today said on his first visit to the Muslim-majority country reeling under a wave of brutal attacks on minorities and secular activists, in a major blow to the government's stance.
Kerry, after holding talks with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and his Bangladeshi counterpart A H Mahmood Ali, said there was "no argument about it (the links)".
"...there is evidence that ISIL in Iraq and Syria has contacts with about eight different entities around the world and one of them is in South Asia," Kerry said.
"They are connected to some degree with some of the operatives here and we made that very clear in our conversation. There was no argument about it," he said.
Hasina's administration has blamed homegrown militancy for a spate of attacks on secular, liberal activists and religious minorities and denied that ISIS has gained a foothold in the country. Kerry's remarks are a major blow to the stance.
He, however, rejected accusations that the government is in denial about the nature of the extremist threat it faces and said the US stood firmly with Bangladesh in its fight against the militants as the two countries agreed to boost cooperation in intelligence exchange.
"I don't believe that the government of Bangladesh has its head in the sand. I do not believe that," he said.
Kerry conveyed the US' interest to work closely with intelligence agencies of Bangladesh to fight terrorism and said that "we need to exchange information to combat terrorism", Hasina's press secretary Ihsanul Karim told a media briefing.
Kerry said the US would work together with Bangladesh to fight terrorism and reiterated its offer to provide experts to this end.
"We would fight with Bangladesh to combat terrorism... we have enough experts in this regard and we could help Bangladesh by giving these experts," Karim quoted Kerry as telling the Bangladeshi premier at her office.
However, Kerry also highlighted that democracy provides "the most resilient and reliable platform we have for preventing and responding to violent extremism", remarks that gain significance in the wake of a crackdown on opponents that has seen thousands of activists behind bars.
The jailed activists are mostly from the party of Hasina's archrival Khaleda Zia, two-time premier.
"Just as important, we understand that to defeat terrorists, we must uphold, not betray, the democratic principles we cherish and they abhor," he said.
Kerry's visit to the country came on a day Bangladesh police raided a hideout of the homegrown outlawed militant outfit Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen and shot dead its commander, who was involved in an attack on a temple and a bid to kill an Italian priest last year, along with his aide.