DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for gunning down an Italian aid worker in the diplomatic quarter of Bangladesh’s capital, according to an intelligence group that monitors jihadist threats, while the government said it had no evidence to back up that claim.
The claim by the Islamic State group could not immediately be verified independently. If confirmed, it would mark the Sunni extremist group’s first attack in Bangladesh, a secular country with a predominantly Muslim population. The South Asian nation has been struggling in recent months with the rapid rise of hardline Islamist groups, banning several that have been blamed for killing four bloggers this year.
Home Minister Asaduzzamn Khan said, however, that authorities had found no evidence that the Islamic State was involved in the killing.
“The claim has not been confirmed, there is no such evidence,” Khan told reporters Tuesday afternoon in the capital, Dhaka.
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Police said earlier that they had no leads in tracing the three unidentified assailants who, riding on a single motorcycle, drove up alongside Cesare Tavella, an Italian citizen, and shot him Monday night.
“We have no idea, we can’t say anything definitively for now,” police official Mukhlesur Rahman said. “Let the investigation happen.”
Initial evidence suggested the attack was planned, police said, noting that nothing had been taken from Tavella.
The Islamic State said in a statement dated Monday that a “security detachment” had tracked and killed Tavella with “silenced weapons” in Dhaka, according to the SITE intelligence group’s website.
IS warned that “citizens of the crusader coalition” would not be safe in Muslim nations. Almost 90 percent of Bangladesh’s 160 million people are Muslim.
Witnesses said they heard at least three gunshots and saw the attackers flee after Tavella fell to the ground, according to police. Tavella was taken to a nearby hospital, where doctors declared him dead.
It was not immediately clear how close the witnesses were to the attack or how the gunshots could have been heard if a silencer was used.
Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said Monday evening in New York that “we are working to verify” the Islamic State’s claim.
The Italian Embassy in Dhaka said in a notice on its website Tuesday that “the responsibility for the murder claimed by ISIS is yet to be verified.” It also asked Italian citizens to avoid public places such as hotels, restaurants and clubs usually frequented by foreigners.
Tavella had been working in Dhaka for ICCO, a Netherlands-based church cooperative, serving as program manager of a project focusing on food security and economic development for people living in rural areas in Bangladesh, according to ICCO’s website.
A veterinarian in his early 50s, Tavella had spent extended periods of time traveling the world and giving instruction on how to raise animals, according to Italian media reports. He left for Bangladesh in late August and had a daughter.
Reports indicate he hadn’t spent much time in Italy recently, at least extended periods, and that he last lived in central Italy above Ravenna.
Heleen Van Der Beek, country director for the Bangladesh branch of the Interchurch Organization for Development Cooperation, or ICCO, said they were extremely shocked by the loss of their colleague.
“We miss him and we extend our deepest, deepest condolences to his family … and loved ones,” Van Der Beek told reporters.
She said the organization was waiting for the results of the police investigation.
The U.S. is working with Bangladeshi authorities and other partners “to assess who is responsible for this cowardly attack” and bring them to justice, the U.S. State Department said.
The U.S. and Britain warned their citizens to be cautious and limit their movements in Bangladesh, with both saying they had “reliable information” that Western interests could be targeted. The statements did not elaborate on the intelligence.
Over the weekend, Australia’s national cricket team delayed its planned tour in Bangladesh over security concerns. The tour has not been rescheduled despite assurances from Bangladesh’s government that the players would have a full security detail.
Dhaka police were questioning witnesses, including street beggars who allegedly heard the gunshots and saw the attackers flee.
One of the witnesses, Sitara Begum, said she was terrified upon hearing the shots while she was sitting on the road at an intersection near the scene of the attack.
“Hearing the gunshots, I looked at the west side and saw two men running to a waiting bike,” Begum said. “They were very young, not more than 20 years old. … There was another man on the bike and they fled.”
Despite the government’s banning of several radical Islamic groups, intelligence sources have confirmed that several hard-line groups are active in Bangladesh. The local group Ansarullah Bangla Team, which has apparent links with al-Qaida on the Indian subcontinent, has claimed responsibility for killing four bloggers who criticized Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and radical Islam.
Associated Press writers Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Matthew Pennington in New York contributed to this report.