Sri Lanka to Investigate Foreign Links of Group Blamed for Easter Bombings
Sri Lanka is imposing a state of emergency after pointing the finger at a little known radical Islamist group for the series of devastating blasts that killed 290 people and injured hundreds of others on Easter Sunday.
The government has said it will investigate if the group had links to foreign terrorist organizations even as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe confirmed that the country had received prior warning of the attacks from a foreign intelligence agency.
The sophisticated planning behind the attacks that struck churches and hotels shattering a decade-long calm in the island nation has taken aback investigators and officials.
"We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country," cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne told reporters. "There must be a wider international network behind it."
President Maithripala Sirisena is expected to meet diplomats in Colombo on Tuesday to ask for help in tracing the possible links of the attackers to overseas militant groups.
Officials say they believe seven suicide bombers belonging to the National Thowfeek Jamaath (NTJ) group carried out the coordinated attacks that ripped through four hotels and three prominent churches, claiming a heavy toll and leaving a nation in shock. Not much is known about NTJ, which only came to attention last year when it was blamed for defacing some Buddhist statues.
Fear of more blasts gripped the country on Monday as 87 bomb detonators were found at Colombo’s main bus station and an explosion in a van parked near one of the bombed churches sent passers-by fleeing. The explosion occurred when a bomb being defused by police went off.
Streets in the capital were mostly deserted, and many businesses remained shuttered as heavy police deployment continued in the country. Armed soldiers and bomb-sniffing dogs had replaced the tourists that usually crowd the beach facing the hotel district.
Six blasts that claimed most of the victims took place Sunday morning when churches were crowded with Easter worshipers, and tourists and businessmen were sitting for breakfast in restaurants at luxury hotels.
One of the suicide bombers had lined up for the breakfast buffet at a hotel restaurant according to police. Two more blasts were reported in the afternoon. The capital, Colombo, took the worst hit.
The White House said President Donald Trump called Sri Lanka's prime minister to express his condolences over the blasts.
The nationwide emergency in Sri Lanka, effective at midnight, gives police wide powers to carry out searches and interrogate suspects. Authorities said 24 people have been arrested so far, but police have given no details about the detainees.
Police also said that they will investigate if warnings that suicide bombers had planned attacks on prominent churches, hotels and the Indian High Commission had been ignored.
Media reports in India said the warning had come from Indian intelligence agencies.
A political blame game appears to be erupting over the alleged failure to take action on the intelligence. Wickremesinghe said, "We must look into why adequate precautions were not taken. Neither I nor the ministers were kept informed."
Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have been political rivals since the former attempted to replace him unsuccessfully four months ago, creating a divide in the government, according to political analysts.
The country was no stranger to bombings and violence during a 25-year-civil war, but the end of the insurgency in 2009 had restored tranquility to the tropical island.
Cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said, "We are very, very sorry. As a government, we have to apologize to the families and the institutions about this incident."
Some investigators said the targets — hotels and churches — appear to have been chosen to garner maximum international attention.
While most of the victims were Sri Lankans, 39 foreigners were among those who died, according to the latest count. Those killed include celebrity Sri Lankan chef Shantha Mayadunne and her daughter, who posted a photo of the family having Easter breakfast just before the explosion.
The 1.5 million Christians in the mostly Buddhist country make up about 7 percent of the population.