Saturday 21 September 2019

Isil claims Sri Lanka attacks

Intelligence failure investigated after 'Christchurch retaliation'

Grief: A relative weeps over the grave of a victim of the Easter bombings in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Image: AP/Eranga Jayawardena
Grief: A relative weeps over the grave of a victim of the Easter bombings in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Image: AP/Eranga Jayawardena

Krishan Francis and Emily Schmall

ISIL claimed responsibility for the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, as the death toll rose to 321 yesterday, and released images that purported to show the attackers.

The claim came as the country's prime minister warned several suspects armed with explosives were still at large.

Another top government official said the suicide bombings at the churches, hotels and other sites were carried out by Islamic fundamentalists in apparent retaliation for the New Zealand mosque massacres last month, which a white supremacist has been charged with carrying out.

Isil, which has lost all the territory it held in Iraq and Syria, has made a series of unsupported claims of responsibility and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said investigators were still determining the extent of the bombers' foreign links.

Sri Lankan authorities have blamed the attacks on National Towheed Jamaar, a little- known Islamic extremist group in the island nation. Its leader, alternately known as Mohammed Zahran or Zahran Hashmi, became known to Muslim leaders three years ago for incendiary speeches online.

Isil's Aamaq news agency released an image purporting to show the attack leader, standing amid seven others whose faces are covered.

The group did not provide any other evidence for its claim, and the identities of those depicted in the image were not independently verified.

Meanwhile, in an address to parliament, Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said "weakness" in Sri Lanka's security apparatus led to the failure to prevent the nine bombings.

"By now it has been established that the intelligence units were aware of this attack and a group of responsible people were informed about the impending attack," he said.

"However, this information has been circulated among only a few officials."

In an address to the nation yesterday, Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena said he also was kept in the dark on the intelligence about the planned attacks and vowed to "take stern action" against the officials who failed to share the information. He also pledged "a complete restructuring" of the security forces.

Mr Wijewardene said the government had evidence the bombings were carried out "by an Islamic fundamentalist group" in retaliation for the March 15 mosque shootings in New Zealand which killed 50 people, although he did not disclose what the evidence was.

The office of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern issued a statement responding to the claim that described Sri Lanka's investigation as "in its early stages". "New Zealand has not yet seen any intelligence upon which such an assessment might be based," it said.

As Sri Lanka's leaders wrangled over the apparent intelligence failure, security was out in force for a national day of mourning.

In the city of Negombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, held a funeral service in the courtyard of St Sebastian Church, where 110 people were killed in one of the bombings.

Hundreds of military and police personnel attended the service, and nuns, priests and community members were frisked as they arrived.

Because of the toll, the service lasted several hours, with coffins brought in three and four at a time, accompanied by sobbing relatives.

The coffins were then taken to a mass burial site and covered by three earth movers.

The military used special police powers last used during a civil war that ended in 2009. Among the 40 people arrested on suspicion of links to the bombings were the driver of a van allegedly used by the suicide attackers and the owner of a house where some of them lived.

All seven bombers were Sri Lankans, but authorities said they strongly suspected foreign links.

Irish Independent

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