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Sri Lanka President asks security officials to quit; toll 359

The opposition has questioned the government’s failure to act, especially after Indian officials warned their Sri Lankan counterparts at least three times about possible terror attacks on churches.

world Updated: Apr 25, 2019 00:03 IST
Agencies
Agencies
Colombo
Sri Lanka,president,police chief
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has asked the police chief and defence secretary to quit following the Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels that killed 359 people(REUTERS)

Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena on Wednesday sought the resignations of the defence secretary and national police chief, a major shake-up after security forces failed to heed intelligence reports of possible attacks before the Easter bombings that killed nearly 360 people.

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks on Christians worshipping in three churches and people at three luxury hotels. Sri Lankan authorities have blamed the carnage on National Thowheeth Jamaath (NTJ), and officials suspect foreign militants were advising, funding or guiding the attackers.

Sirisena had said during a televised speech on Tuesday that he planned to change the head of the defence forces within 24 hours. He had added that he was kept in the dark on the intelligence about the planned attacks and vowed to “take stern action” against officials who failed to share the information.

He also pledged “a complete restructuring” of the security forces.

The opposition has questioned the government’s failure to act, especially after Indian officials warned their Sri Lankan counterparts at least three times about possible terror attacks on churches. The reports had said the Indian mission could also be targeted.

US envoy Alaina Teplitz told reporters that “clearly there was some failure in the system”, but the US had no prior knowledge of a threat before the attacks, the worst in the island nation since its civil war ended in 2009. Teplitz called that breakdown in communication “incredibly tragic”.

Teplitz said there is a “right-sized” team of FBI agents and US military officials assisting Sri Lanka in the investigation. This support was part of the help offered by President Donald Trump, the US embassy said.

Junior defence minister Ruwan Wijewardene blamed breakaway members of two obscure local extremist Muslim groups — NTJ and JMI — for the attacks, and said many of the suicide bombers were highly educated and came from well-off families.

“Their thinking is that Islam can be the only religion in this country,” he told reporters. “They are quite well-educated people,” he said, adding that at least one bomber had a law degree and some may have studied in the UK and Australia.

However, government statements about the attacks have been confused and sometimes contradictory, with police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara telling reporters on Wednesday there were nine suicide bombers — two more than officials said on Tuesday.

One of the additional suicide bombers was the wife of another bomber, Gunasekara said. The woman, two children and three policemen died in an explosion as authorities closed in on her late on Sunday, hours after the attacks.

The ninth suicide bomber was not identified, though two more suspects were killed in a later explosion on the outskirts of Colombo.

Gunasekara said 60 people had been arrested so far. Officials also said all of the main suicide bombers were Sri Lankan.

“We are conducting investigations at the moment to see if there is any direct link to any international organisations,” Wijewardene said.

Sri Lanka has been on heightened alert since the attacks, with police setting off a series of controlled explosions of suspicious objects. No more bombs were found on Wednesday.

The government was also attacked for its inaction against radical preachers, with a mosque official saying he had repeatedly warned authorities, including about the activities of Zahran Hashim, the alleged mastermind of the attacks.

Reyyaz Salley, chairman of the Shaikh Usman Waliyullah mosque in Colombo, said he warned the government about radical preachers, including Hashim. “They started to attack Sufi mosques and shrines [in 2010],” he said.

In February, Salley sent police and intelligence officials videos that Hashim made promoting jihad and urged them to act. “People have been brainwashed. He was talking about jihad. These are all very dangerous messages for the country,” he told CNN.

“If the authorities had taken our advice this could have been prevented,” he said.

First Published: Apr 24, 2019 16:33 IST