Thursday 19 September 2019

Death toll lowered after church bombings but Sri Lanka is braced for more attacks

Mass: Women pray for the victims of the blasts. Photo: Reuters
Mass: Women pray for the victims of the blasts. Photo: Reuters

Ranga Sirilal

Sri Lanka yesterday lowered the death toll from the Easter suicide bombings by nearly one-third to 253, as authorities hunted urgently for a least five more suspects and braced for the possibility of more attacks in the next few days.

In rolling back the number of dead from 359, a top Health Ministry official, Dr Anil Jasinghe, said the blasts had damaged some bodies beyond recognition, making identification difficult. He blamed inaccurate data provided by morgues for the discrepancy.

He said any figure was an estimate: "It could be 250 or 260. I can't exactly say. There are so many body parts and it is difficult to give a precise figure."

Religious leaders, meanwhile, cancelled public prayer gatherings amid warnings of more such attacks, along with retaliatory sectarian violence.

In an unusually specific warning, the US Embassy in Sri Lanka said places of worship could be hit by extremists this weekend.

At least 58 people have been arrested in connection with the wave of blasts at churches and luxury hotels last Sunday, including the father of two of the alleged suicide bombers - one of Sri Lanka's wealthiest spice traders. Authorities have said those involved in the bloodbath were well-educated and well-off financially.

Sri Lankan authorities have blamed a local Muslim militant group, National Towheed Jamaat. The Islamic State group has also claimed responsibility, though officials are still investigating the extent of any involvement.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said militants who may have explosives remain on the loose in the country and "may go out for a suicide attack".

"We have rounded up a lot of suspects, but there are still active people on the run," Mr Wickremesinghe said. "They may be having explosives with them, so we have to find them."

Police appealed for information about an extra three women and two men suspected of involvement in the bombings.

The bloodshed stirred fears of more sectarian violence in Sri Lanka.

"Sri Lankan authorities are reporting that additional attacks may occur targeting places of worship," the US embassy warned on Twitter.

"Avoid these areas over the weekend, starting tomorrow."

Britain advised its citizens against travelling to the island country.

Sri Lanka's Islamic religious affairs minister appealed to Muslims to avoid gathering for Friday prayers and urged them to pray at home.

Irish Independent

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