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Friday 20 September 2019

Sri Lanka president calls for resignations of minister and police chief after Easter bombings

  • Country’s prime minister warned that several suspects armed with explosives were still at large
  • Death toll from the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka has risen to 359
  • Islamic State group has made a series of unsupported claims of responsibility
  • Nationwide curfew begins at 9pm
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
Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

Sri Lanka’s president has asked for the resignations of the country’s defence secretary and national police chief after the Easter bombings.

His calls come as the death toll from the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka has risen to 359 and more suspects have been arrested, police in Colombo said.

The death toll rises as the country’s prime minister warned that 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, that a white supremacist has been charged with carrying out.

The Islamic State group, which has lost all the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria, has made a series of unsupported claims of responsibility and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that 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.

Police officers work at the scene at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negambo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Police officers work at the scene at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negambo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Blood is seen on a pair of shoes at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negambo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Police officers work at the scene at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negambo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Police officers work at the scene at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negambo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Blood stains are seen on a statue of Jesus Christ at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negambo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Police officers work at the scene at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negambo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Police officers work at the scene at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negambo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Police officers work at the scene at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negambo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Relatives of victims react at a police mortuary, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
Relatives of victims react at a police mortuary, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
Police officers work at the scene at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negambo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Relatives of victims react at a police mortuary, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
An investigation marker is seen near belongings at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negambo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Police officers work at the scene in St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negambo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Damage is seen at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negambo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
A view of the damage at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negambo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Security officers guard the road to the president’s house in Colombo, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
Police officers guard St Anthony's Shrine in Colombo, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Locals stand in front of St Anthony's shrine in Colombo, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
A security officer stands in front of St Anthony's shrine in Colombo, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Crime scene officials inspect the site of a bomb blast inside St Sebastian's Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer
A blood-spattered statue of Jesus Christ is pictured while crime scene officials inspect the site of a bomb blast, as the sun shines through the blown-out roof, inside St Sebastian's Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer
Catholic nuns look at the explosion site inside a church in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

Its leader, alternately known as Mohammed Zahran or Zahran Hashmi, became known to Muslim leaders three years ago for his incendiary speeches online.

The IS group’s Aamaq news agency released an image purporting to show the leader of the attackers, 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, Ruwan Wijewardene, minister of defence, said “weakness” within Sri Lanka’s security apparatus led to the failure to prevent the nine bombings.

People carry a woman who fainted during a three minute nationwide silence (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)
People carry a woman who fainted during a three minute nationwide silence (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

“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,” Mr Wijewardene said.

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

In a live address to the nation late Tuesday, 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.

Relatives bury three members of the same family, all killed at Easter Sunday bomb blast at St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka (Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP)
Relatives bury three members of the same family, all killed at Easter Sunday bomb blast at St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka (Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP)

Mr Wijewardene said the government had evidence that the bombings were carried out “by an Islamic fundamentalist group” in retaliation for the March 15 mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, that 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 Christchurch claim that described Sri Lanka’s investigation as “in its early stages”.

Sri Lankans pray during a three-minute nationwide silence (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)
Sri Lankans pray during a three-minute nationwide silence (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

“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 Tuesday.

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.

Elsewhere in Negombo, where soldiers stood every few feet, private memorials were held with tents set up on lawns for guests.

Also Tuesday, the military employed special police powers that it last used during a devastating 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.

A nationwide curfew began at 9pm.

The near-simultaneous bombings Sunday at three churches and three luxury hotels, as well as three related blasts, left 321 dead and 500 wounded, representing Sri Lanka’s deadliest violence in a decade.

Word from international intelligence agencies that the local group National Towheed Jamaar was planning attacks apparently did not reach the prime minister’s office until after the massacre, exposing the continuing turmoil in the highest levels of government.

On April 11, Priyalal Disanayaka, the deputy inspector general of police, signed a letter addressed to directors of four Sri Lankan security agencies, warning them a group was planning a suicide attack.

The intelligence report attached to his letter, which has circulated on social media, identified the group as National Towheed Jamaar and its leader as Zahran Hashmi, and said it was targeting “some important churches” in a suicide attack that was planned to take place “shortly”.

The report identified six individuals likely to be involved in the plot, including someone it said had been building support for Zahran and was in hiding since the group clashed with another religious organisation in 2018.

On Monday, Sri Lanka’s health minister held up a copy of the intelligence report while describing its contents, spurring questions about what police had done to protect the public.

A block on most social media since the attacks has left a vacuum of information, fuelling confusion and giving little reassurance the danger had passed.

Even after an overnight curfew ended, the streets of central Colombo were mostly deserted Tuesday and shops closed as armed soldiers stood guard.

Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the massacre could unleash instability and he vowed to “vest all necessary powers with the defence forces” to act against those responsible.

At a later news conference, he warned that more militants and explosives were “out there”.

Authorities said they knew where the group trained and had safe houses, but did not identify any of the seven suicide bombers, whose bodies were recovered, or the other suspects taken into custody.

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

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