Bangladesh police on Tuesday launched a deadly crackdown on Islamist militants as a 70-year-old Hindu priest became the latest victim in a series of gruesome killings by jihadists.
As a government minister tried to portray the recent attacks as part of a conspiracy involving Israel's Mossad spy agency, security forces waged deadly gunbattles with members of a homegrown jihadist group.
Two "high-ranking" members of the Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) were shot dead in a battle in Dhaka and another was killed in a northwestern district, police told AFP.
The two JMB members killed in the capital had roles "in most of the recent attacks" including the bombing of a Shiite mosque and the murder of a liberal professor, said deputy commissioner of police M.R Khaled.
The third victim was killed in another gunfight in the town of Godagari in the northwestern district of Rajshahi, said local police chief Abu Forhad.
Bangladeshi authorities have been coming under mounting international pressure to end the string of attacks on religious minorities and secular activists that have left more than 40 people dead in the last three years.
Authorities have blamed homegrown Islamists for the attacks, which have surged in recent weeks, rejecting claims of responsibility from the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group and a South Asia branch of Al-Qaeda.
ISIS claimed the latest victim, Hindu priest Ananda Gopal Ganguly, whose head was nearly severed. The group, through its Amaq news agency, said it "assassinated" the priest, according to the SITE monitoring group, as he was walking to prayers.
Farmers discovered Ganguly's body in a rice field near his home in the village of Noldanga in the western district of Jhenidah.
Investigators said the murder bore the hallmarks of recent attacks by local Islamist extremists who have carried out 10 other similar killings in the last 10 weeks.
Witnesses saw three unidentified men on a motorcycle attack him with a bamboo stick before "they slit his throat", the district's deputy police chief Gopinath Kanjilal said.
"He left home this morning saying that he was going to a Hindu house to offer prayers," Kanjilal told AFP.
"Later, farmers found his near-decapitated body in a rice field."
Although most of the recent attacks have been claimed by IS or the local offshoot of Al-Qaeda, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government has blamed its domestic opponents for the attacks.
Speaking to AFP on Tuesday, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan again linked the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to the attacks, saying they were part of a wider conspiracy that also involved Mossad.
"These killings are part of a national and international conspiracy. Those who are carrying out these incidents are communicating with Mossad," Khan told AFP.
Israeli officials at first said they had no comment on the minister's remarks, but an Israeli Foreign Ministry official told the BBC the conspiracy theory was "utter drivel."
A senior BNP official was charged with sedition last month for allegedly plotting against the state when he met an Israeli government adviser.
Aslam Chowdhury, a joint secretary of the party, was arrested after local media reported he had met the adviser, Mendi Safadi, in India in March.
Experts say a government ban on Bangladesh's largest Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami following a protracted political crisis has pushed many towards extremism.
Jamaat is a traditional ally of the BNP whose leader, two-time former prime minister Khaleda Zia, is facing a series of charges in connection with deadly firebombings.
Victims of the recent murders by suspected Islamists have included secular bloggers, gay rights activists and followers of minority religions.
Amnesty International on Tuesday demanded "a prompt, thorough, impartial and transparent investigation" of the recent killings, adding that the government must "protect those still under threat".
"In the current climate of impunity, increasing numbers of people have reported facing threats that the authorities have repeatedly failed to address," the group's statement said.
Although it is officially secular, around 90 percent of Bangladesh's 160 million-strong population is Muslim.
AFP contributed to this report.