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Explosions at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka killed at least 321 people and injured more than 500 on Easter Sunday. These are the latest developments:
● The state minister for defense said investigations show the attack was carried out in retaliation for the Christchurch mosque shootings.
● The death toll was revised to 321 on Tuesday morning, up from 290, according to the state minister for defense.
● The government says the attack was carried out by National Thowheed Jamaath, a local Islamist militant group, with suspected international assistance.
● The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, which it said was carried out by seven fighters and targeted Christians and “citizens of Crusader coalition states.”
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka on Tuesday described the devastating string of Easter bombings that killed at least 321 people as a response to attacks on two mosques in New Zealand last month, even as the radical Islamic State group claimed responsibility.
Three hotels and three churches were attacked by suicide bombers on Sunday in an operation that was the subject of a warning days earlier in an intelligence report that circulated within the Sri Lankan government.
“Investigations have revealed that the attacks were carried out by Islamic extremists in retaliation for the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand,” State Minister of Defense Ruwan Wijewardene told Parliament. On March 15, a white supremacist killed 50 Muslims in two mosques in Christchurch.
However, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was more circumspect in a news conference Tuesday. “It is possible [that Sunday’s attacks] could have been because of the Christchurch attacks,” he said. “We cannot say yet.”
“There seems to have been foreign involvement,” he added. “Some may have traveled abroad and come back. . . . So far it is only Sri Lankan citizens that have been taken in for questioning.”
Wickremesinghe continued: “The security apparatus is of the view that there are foreign links, and there is evidence that points to that. When the ISIS claimed it, we will follow up on the claim.”
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1/90 SLIDES © Chamila Karunarathne/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Explosions hit three churches and four hotels in and around the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo killing at least 310 people on Easter. A week later, fifteen people were killed after suspected militants blew themselves as Sri Lankan police raided the suspected hideout in Sainthamarudu.
(Pictured) Officials inspect the damaged St. Sebastian’s Church after multiple explosions targeting churches and hotels across Sri Lanka on April 21, in Negombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka.
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Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard outside St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo on April 29.
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Residents pray in a prayer house near St Anthony’s Shrine on April 29.
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Sri Lankan policemen check the identity card of a person carrying a back-pack on April 29.
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Soldiers return to their base following an operation searching for explosives and suspects tied to a local group of Islamic State militants in Kalmunai on April 29.
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A Sri Lankan Special Task Force (STF) soldier checks a Muslim burial ground in Colombo on April 29.
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A general view of St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo on April 29.
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Residents pray in a prayer house near St Anthony’s Shrine on April 29.
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People put candles in the formation of Sri Lanka’s map after participating in a peace march to show solidarity with the Sri Lankan victims on April 28 in Ahmadabad.
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A Sri Lankan Catholic woman watches live telecasted holly Mass conducted by the cardinal Malcolm Ranjith at her house near the exploded St. Anthony’s Church in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 28.
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A police officer displays detonators and other bomb making materials in Ampara, Sri Lanka, on April 28.
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A member of the Sri Lankan security forces sits on a motorbike as he keeps watch outside St Anthony’s Shrine, days after a string of suicide bomb attacks across the island in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 28.
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Sri Lankan Catholics pray standing on a road as they attend a brief holly service marking the seventh day of the Easter Sunday attacks near the exploded St. Anthony’s Church in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 28.
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A police officer inspects the site of a gun battle between troops and suspected Islamist militants, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, in Kalmunai, on April 28.
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Sri Lankan army personnel search people and their bags at a check point in Kattankudy near Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, on April 28.
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A police officer leads a sniffer dog past shops near St Anthony’s Shrine on April 28 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
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Sri Lankan police officers secure the area of exploded St. Anthony’s Church on Easter Sunday attacks in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 28.
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A security officer stands guard as personnel clean up outside the St. Anthony’s Shrine, days after the suicide bomb attacks on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, on April 27.
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Sri Lankan Navy soldiers work to clean St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo on April 27, following the series of bomb blasts on Easter Sunday.
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A Sri Lankan Special Task Force (STF) soldier stops a vehicle in Colombo on April 27.
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Security personnel seen at the site of an overnight gun battle, between troops and suspected Islamist militants, on the east coast, in Kalmunai, on April 27.
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Security personnel are seen doing a recce at the site of an overnight gun battle between troops and suspected Islamist militants, in Kalmunai, on April 27.
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Backpacks, explosive materials and other items are seen at the site of the overnight gun battle, in Kalmunai, on April 27.
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Security officials secure the site after a gunbattle in Sainthamarudu, Sri Lanka, on April 27.
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Sri Lankan soldiers inspect a car at a checkpoint in Colombo on April 27, following a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday.
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Sri Lankan police and army officers display bomb making materials recovered from a hideout of militants after the gunbattle in Kalmunai, on April 27.
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Security personnel seen at the site of an overnight gun battle, between troops and suspected Islamist militants, in Kalmunai, on April 27.
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People, who have been relocated to a school building due to an overnight gun battle between troops and suspected Islamist militants on the east coast of Sri Lanka, are seen in Kalmunai, on April 27.
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A woman, who has been relocated to a school building due to an overnight gun battle between troops and suspected Islamist militants in Kalmunai, reacts on April 27.
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Soldiers and armed police officers guard the area near Dawatagaha Jumma Masjid ahead of Friday prayers on April 26, in Colombo.
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A woman cries during a burial service for a bomb blast victim in a cemetery in Colombo on April 23.
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Flags fly at half staff from Christiansborg Palace to commemorate the victims of the attacks in Sri Lanka, in Copenhagen, Denmark, on April 23.
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A Sri Lankan woman prays during a three minute nationwide silence observed to pay homage to the victims of Easter Sunday’s blasts outside St. Anthony’s Shrine on April 23 in Colombo. Police arrested 40 suspects, including the driver of a van allegedly used by suicide bombers involved in deadly Easter bombings.
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A man cries as he walks behind the coffin of a bomb blast victim after a funeral service at St Sebastian’s Church on April 23 in Negombo, Sri Lanka.
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Priests and nuns are seen at the fringe of a mass near St Sebastian Church, during a memorial service on April 23 in Negombo, Sri Lanka.
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Sri Lankan security personnel inspect the debris of a car after it explodes when police tried to defuse a bomb near St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo on April 22, a day after the series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka.
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Police officers work at the scene in St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negombo, on April 22.
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Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard near a car explosion after the police tried to defuse a bomb near St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, on April 22.
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Buddhist monks walk outside St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, on April 22.
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A Sri Lankan woman inquires about her relative while holding her photograph outside a hospital morgue, a day after the serial blasts in Colombo, on April 22.
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A Russian man places flowers in tribute to victims, on the wall near the entrance of Sri Lankan embassy in Moscow, Russia, on April 22.
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Pakistani members of civil society hold candles to pay tribute to the Sri Lankan blast victims during a vigil in Lahore, on April 22.
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People who live near a church that was attacked yesterday try to beat a person detained by police, near the church in Colombo, on April 22.
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An Indonesian Muslim student shows her solidarity to the victims of the Sri Lankan blasts, in Surabaya, on April 22.
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Security personnel react as a device was detonated in a controlled explosion in a van near the St Anthony’s Church Kochchikade in Colombo, on April 22.
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A Sri Lankan woman living near St. Anthony’s shrine runs for safety with her infant after police found explosive devices in a parked vehicle in Colombo, April 22.
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Sri Lankan security forces approach the site after a vehicle parked near St. Anthony’s shrine exploded in Colombo, April 22.
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People who live near the church that was attacked yesterday, go down as the military try to defuse a suspected van before it exploded, in Colombo, April 22.
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Sri Lankan police clear the area while Special Task Force Bomb Squad officers inspect the site of an exploded van near a church that was attacked yesterday in Colombo, April 22.
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Relatives weep near the coffin with the remains of 12-year Sneha Savindi, who was a victim of Easter Sunday bombing at St. Sebastian Church, after it returned home, April 22, in Negombo.
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The mother of Shaini, 13, who died as bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, mourns at her wake, in Negombo, April 22.
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A foreigner checks his mobile phone while waiting outside a mortuary of a hospital, a day after series of blasts, in Colombo, April 22.
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Relatives of victims of the explosion at St. Anthony’s Shrine, Kochchikade church try to identify bodies of their close ones at the police mortuary in Colombo, April 22.
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Security personnel inspect inside St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo on April 22.
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Sri Lankan Soldiers on a motorcycle drives past Kingsbury Hotel, which was attacked by a suicide bomber, in Colombo, April 22.
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Relatives of victims react at a police mortuary, in Colombo, on April 22.
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Security personnel inspect the interior of St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo on April 22.
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Police and forensics officials inspect the interior of St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo on April 22.
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An investigation marker is seen near belongings at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, in Negambo, on April 22.
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A damaged window is seen as security personnel investigate at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, in Negambo, on April 22.
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Police officers guard St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, in Sri Lanka on April 22.
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Damage is seen at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, in Negambo, on April 22.
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Shoes of victims are kept as evidence as security personnel inspect the interior of St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo on April 22.
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Security officers guard the road to the president’s house in Colombo, on April 22.
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Real Madrid players observe a minute of silence for the victims of the blast in Sri Lanka prior of the Spanish La Liga soccer match in Madrid, Spain on April 21.
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The Eiffel tower lights are dimmed just before midnight in Paris, as an homage to the victims of Sri Lanka bombings, on April 21.
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Crime scene officials inspect the site of a bomb blast inside a church in Negombo, on April 21.
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A relative of a victim of the explosion at St. Anthony’s Shrine, Kochchikade church, reacts at the police mortuary in Colombo, April 21.
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An injured Sri Lankan woman is transported on a stretcher at a hospital following an explosion at a church in Batticaloa on April 21.
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Sri Lankan hospital workers stand at the door to a morgue following a blast in a church in Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka on April 21.
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A Sri Lankan catholic devotee holds a blood-stained photograph of an unidentified person requesting people to identify him as people wait to identify dead bodies of their loved ones in front of the St Anthony’s Church where an explosion took place in Kochchikade, Colombo, on April 21.
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A view of blast site near the Dehiwala zoo, near Colombo, on April 21.-
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Sri Lankan Special Task Force (STF) personnel are pictured outside a house during a raid after a suicide blast had killed police searching the property in the Orugodawatta area of the capital Colombo on April 21, following a series of blasts in churches and hotels.
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Sri Lankan security personnel and investigators look through debris outside Zion Church following an explosion in Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka on April 21.
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Security personal stand guard outside of the Cinnemon Grande Hotel in Colombo, on April 21.
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Security forces inspect the scene after a blast targeting The Kingsbury hotel in Colombo, on April 21.
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Sri Lankan military officials stand guard in front of the St. Anthony’s Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka on April 21.
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Sri Lankan police stand at the site of an explosion in a restaurant area of the luxury Shangri-La Hotel on April 21 in Colombo.
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Priests outside the St. Anthony’s Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion.
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An inside view of the St. Anthony’s Shrine after an explosion hit St Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade in Colombo.
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Relatives of people killed in Church blasts mourn as they wait outside mortuary of a hospital in Colombo.
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Buddhist monks stand in front of the St. Anthony’s Shrine
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Sri Lankan police officers clear the road as an ambulance drives through carrying injured of Church blasts.
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Priests walk into the St. Anthony’s Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion.
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Security personnel inspect the site after an explosion hit at St Anthony’s Church.
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A shoe of a victim is seen in front of the St. Anthony’s Shrine.
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A Sri Lankan elderly woman is helped near St. Anthony’s Shrine after a blast.
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An ambulance is seen outside the church premises with gathered people and security personnel following a blast.
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Sri Lankan military officials stand guard in front of the St. Anthony’s Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo.
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Sri Lankan military officials stand guard in front of the St. Anthony’s Shrine, in Colombo.
Slideshow by photo services
In a statement carried Tuesday by the Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency, the extremist group said Sunday’s attacks targeted Christians and “coalition countries” and were carried out by fighters from its organization. The claim could not immediately be confirmed, and the group has been known to make opportunistic claims of responsibility for previous attacks conducted without its involvement.
A subsequent Islamic State communique said seven fighters took part in the attacks, which it said killed “nearly 350 Christians and [wounded] 650 others, including citizens of Crusader coalition states,” according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.
However, a photo published by Amaq of what it said was the attack group showed eight people, all wearing identical long tunics. A bearded man in the center, his face uncovered, was shown carrying an assault rifle. The faces of the others were obscured by headscarves. Three of them visibly held knives in their right hands.
Wijewardene did not mention the Islamic State but said the attack was carried out by members of two local radical Islamist groups, the National Thowheed Jamaath and the little-known Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim.
A U.S. official said the Thowheed group has links to the Islamic State, but their significance is unclear. Investigators here and abroad were working to determine whether the group received help from overseas.
Wijewardene did not offer any evidence for the connection between the attacks in Sri Lanka and New Zealand, and when later pressed, said it was because churches and foreigners were targeted. He also acknowledged there were security lapses that allowed Sunday’s attacks to occur.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, an opposition leader and Sri Lanka’s former strongman president, ascribed the security failure to rivalries between the president and the prime minister.
“Don’t take this as a joke,” he said. “As long as the division between the president and the prime minister exists, you can’t solve this problem. My security division knew about the advance notice [of the attack]; I did not.”
Leaked copies of a report by intelligence officials earlier this month warned of plans by the National Thowheed Jamaath group to attack churches. Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne has called for the resignation of the top police official for not taking any action.
By Tuesday morning, 40 people had been arrested, including three being held by the Terrorism Investigation Department, said police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara.
Mujibur Rahman, a member of Sri Lanka’s Parliament, said police have informed lawmakers that “eight or nine others linked to this ring” are still at large and are being sought.
Wickremesinghe, the prime minister, corroborated that, telling reporters Tuesday that some people linked to the bomb plot are on the run and could be armed with explosives.
He confirmed during Tuesday’s news conference that a fourth hotel was targeted but said the attack failed. He refused to name the hotel.
Asked how he felt when he learned that intelligence on the plot had been withheld from him, the prime minister said, “I was shocked when I heard about it.” He added: “What has happened is a breakdown of communication. . . . We have to make some changes.”
If the intelligence on the plot had been shared, “certainly we could have prevented many of the attacks in the churches, had more security in the hotels” Wickremesinghe said. “We could have prevented all the attacks or reduced the attacks that have taken place.”
Some officials who failed to pass on information “will be removed from their posts,” he said.
The prime minister said 32 Sri Lankan Muslims left the country to join the Islamic State. Some have been killed, but others have come back, and intelligence agents “have been following them,” he said.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s attacks, police have been given emergency powers to detain and question suspects without a court order. Such powers were used extensively during Sri Lanka’s civil war but have not been employed since 2011.
It was also announced that schools and universities would be closed, at least until Monday, and Masses at churches were canceled until further notice. The country has been on edge, with three bomb scares, including one at the U.S. Embassy, taking place in the last 24 hours.
Police have been instructed to look out for five bikes, a cab and a van suspected of carrying more explosives.
At the central morgue in Colombo, relatives of those killed continued to arrive Tuesday throughout the long, hot afternoon. Thiruchelvam, who goes by one name, came to collect the death certificate for his brother-in-law, who was killed in a blast at St. Anthony’s Shrine, the largest Roman Catholic church in the capital. He said his wife was devastated by the loss of her only brother, a photographer with two young children.
Thiruchelvam said he wished that the government had told its citizens what it knew about the threat. “If people had known, they would have avoided the churches,” he said.
Funerals, meanwhile, were being held for the victims.
© The Associated Press People pray during a nationwide three-minutes silence as a tribute to Easter Sunday attack victims in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, April 23, 2019. Easter Sunday bombings of churches, luxury hotels and other sites was Sri Lanka’s deadliest violence since a devastating civil war in the South Asian island nation ended a decade ago. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
“Endless crying” is how Malini Vijaysingha, 60, described the hours since the attack as she paid her respects outside one of the bombed churches. She blamed the bombings on the Islamic State. “The whole world should destroy IS,” she said. The links between the perpetrators and the Islamic State remain unclear.
The United States pledged support for the investigation, dispatching FBI agents to help and offering laboratory experience to test bomb evidence. At least four U.S. citizens are among the dead, and “several” Americans were seriously injured, the State Department said Monday.
The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry said in an update Tuesday that 34 foreign nationals have been identified among the dead and that 14 others “are unaccounted for at present and could be among the unidentified victims” at a government mortuary. The confirmed fatalities include two people holding dual U.S. and British citizenship, the ministry said. Sixteen injured foreigners remain hospitalized; others have been treated and released, it said.
Investigators will be looking into how the local Islamist group, whose name roughly translates to National Monotheism Organization, was able to carry out such a planned, coordinated and deadly attack and whether it had overseas help, as officials suggested Monday. President Maithripala Sirisena asked for international assistance in determining any foreign links.
As news of the supposed advance notice about the attacks spread, mourners responded with rising anger mixed with grief at funerals and other gatherings in Christian communities.
“This is the government’s fault. They are incompetent. They knew and they did nothing,” said one man who was weeping Monday outside a funeral in Negombo. He did not give his name but turned away and joined others entering a house where the coffin of a woman lay on a cloth-covered table, surrounded by silent mourners.
Two officials provided The Washington Post with the three-page intelligence report that the health minister alluded to, in which a senior police official warned of potential suicide attacks by the same Islamist extremist group.
The authenticity of those documents were verified by Wijewardene, Sri Lanka’s state minister for defense. The report also identified several members by name, including the group’s alleged leader.
Rahman, the member of Parliament, said he was briefed on the report and that it was based on information from Indian intelligence agencies.
Authorities said the main attacks — on churches and hotels — were carried out by seven suicide bombers.
A Sri Lankan security official characterized Thowheed Jamaath as a shell for the Islamic State and said it has been active in Kattankudy, an area in the eastern part of the country and home to one of its largest Muslim populations. The group’s leadership is believed to be based there, the official said.
The official said there could be additional explosives or potential suicide bombers.
“Right now, they are searching everywhere for possible bombs and people involved,” the official said Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed “Islamic radical terror” for the attacks. He also spoke Monday morning with Wickremesinghe, the prime minister, and pledged “all possible assistance” to Sri Lanka.
“This is America’s fight, too,” Pompeo said at a news conference. Although the Islamic State’s “caliphate” has been destroyed with the collapse of the group’s last strongholds in Syria, “radical Islamist terror remains a threat,” he said. “We have to remain active and vigilant, and it’s going to require attention.”
Thowheed Jamaath “wasn’t on anyone’s radar,” said Michael Leiter, who served as director of the National Counterterrorism Center in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. He said the attack probably had an international nexus, given that not only Sri Lankans were targeted.
“It wouldn’t surprise me either if there were at least a couple of people who had traveled to Syria,” Leiter said. “There was never a large Sri Lankan population there, but it only takes one or two to return and inspire a local group to align itself ideologically and tactically with a global violent jihadist organization.”
It might be too soon to say whether the Sri Lankan bombers had outside assistance, said Nicholas Rasmussen, a former senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council who also ran the National Counterterrorism Center in the Obama and Trump administrations.
“But it wouldn’t take much — a connection between Sri Lankan foreign fighters in Syria with like-minded people back home — in order to create such a connection,” Rasmussen said. He added that the high death toll and simultaneous attacks suggested a degree of sophistication in bombmaking and organization, which are “characteristic of an established group.”
The SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist activity online, said Monday that an unidentified Islamic State supporter distributed photos of three alleged “commandos” involved in the Sri Lanka attacks. The photos were posted in pro-Islamic State chat rooms, and the men, pictured holding weapons in front of Islamic State banners, were described as “among the commando brothers in Sri Lanka,” SITE said.
The group reported Sunday that Islamic State supporters were portraying the attacks as revenge for strikes on mosques and Muslims.
The highly coordinated attacks left the island nation reeling, a crushing blow after almost a decade of peace since the end of its civil war.
In that time, tourism in Sri Lanka had been steadily growing, the country transformed by the apparent end of instability, bloodshed and frequent suicide bombings over the 26-year war.
A three-minute silence was observed countrywide at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Tensions remain high across the island nation. The U.S. Embassy in Colombo said in a tweet that a bomb disposal unit had verified that a suspicious package near the embassy building was not an explosive device.
The incident was the third such bomb scare over the past 24 hours.
Mahtani reported from Hong Kong. Rukshana Rizwie, Harshana Thushara Silva and Devana Senanayake in Colombo, Niha Masih in New Delhi, Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Shane Harris, Souad Mekhennet, Devlin Barrett, Julie Tate and William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.
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