DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Monday for Bangladesh to step up efforts to fight extremist violence and protect and promote human rights amid increasing concern about terrorism in the South Asian nation in the wake of a series of militant attacks.
Kerry, on his first trip to Bangladesh as America's top diplomat, met in Dhaka on Monday with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Foreign Minister Abdul Hassam Mahmood Ali, opposition officials and students. Bangladesh is struggling to deal with the rash of attacks, the most recent of which killed 20 people, including 17 foreigners, at a popular restaurant last month in Dhaka, the capital.
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Bangladeshi authorities maintain that IS has no presence in the country and that a local banned group, Jumatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh, or JMB, was behind it. Some have accused Bangladesh of turning a blind eye to the possibility of outsiders radicalizing elements of the Muslim-majority nation.
Kerry rejected that criticism, saying he does not believe that "the government of a Bangladesh has its head in the sand."
But, he spoke pointedly of the transnational threat posed by terrorism. The July 1 attack on Dhaka's Holey Artisan Bakery "was an outrage clearly designed to divide Bangladesh, designed to try to cut off this welcoming society from the outside world," Kerry said.
"These heinous acts of violence - and too many others worldwide - are a stark, painful reminder that those who aid terrorist groups or perpetrate these acts have no respect for national boundaries, no concern for the rights of others, no regard for the rule of law," he said. Kerry said a longstanding counterterrorism dialogue has intensified in recent months and work with the Bangladeshi police and military will continue with an eye toward further cooperation.
On Saturday, police said they had killed three suspected militants, including an alleged mastermind of the cafe attack. But many of the perpetrators of a string of attacks over the past two years that have killed atheist bloggers, foreign aid workers and religious minorities remain at large.
Kerry urged the government of Bangladesh to resist the temptation to shut down public debate or stifle opposition groups as a way to combat the threat.
"Democracy," he said, "still provides the most resilient and reliable platform we have for preventing and responding to violent extremism ... to defeat terrorists, we must uphold, not betray, the democratic principles we cherish and they abhor."
Kerry also spoke of the need for authorities to protect the rights and safety of its workers, particularly those in the garment industry that earns the country more than $20 billion a year from exports, mainly to the United States and Europe and employs about 4 million workers, mostly women, in 4,000 factories.
"Bangladesh cannot truly meet the aspirations of its people and share prosperity if its workers are not safe and their rights are not ensured," he said, referring to the 2013 collapse of a building that housed five garment factories and killed more than 1,100 people in the country's worst industrial disaster.
After his brief stop in Bangladesh, Kerry travels to India later Monday for the seventh meeting of the U.S.-India strategic dialogue, which seeks to improve security and well as economic and development ties between the nations.
This year's discussions are taking place as tensions rise in the disputed region of Kashmir, scene of some of the largest protests against Indian rule in recent years. Since early July, at least 67 civilians have been killed and thousands injured, mostly by government forces firing bullets and shotguns at rock-throwing protesters. Two policemen have been killed and hundreds of government forces have been injured in the clashes. On Monday, Indian authorities lifted a curfew in most parts of Indian-controlled Kashmir as part of a 52-day security lockdown but tensions persist.