On a day when Sri Lanka paused for a minute’s silence to mark the Easter Sunday blasts, a day when the first mass funeral of those killed were held, two chilling announcements added to the clouds of fear and apprehension hanging over the nation: the attacks were carried out by Islamic State, and were in retaliation for the shooting in two Christchurch mosques last month.
Late in the night, came another twist. President Maithripala Sirisena claimed in a televised address to the nation that the intelligence report early this month that warned of the attacks was not shared with him. He also said there would be changes at the top of the security apparatus “in the next 24 hours”.
Earlier Tuesday, as the death toll rose to 321, the Islamic State broadcast its claim in a short statement on the AMAQ news agency. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said Lankan agencies will follow up on the claims.
The Christchurch connection was revealed by state defence minister Ruwan Wijewardene in Parliament. “Preliminary investigations have revealed that what happened in Sri Lanka was in retaliation for the attack against Muslims in Christchurch (on March 15),” Wijewardene said.
New Zealand, however, reacted cautiously, saying that it “has not yet seen any intelligence upon which such an assessment might be based”.
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Lankan security officials, meanwhile, confronted new threats: the fear of more terror strikes, and “retaliation from a section of Sinhalese Christian fringe groups”.
Speaking to The Indian Express, a senior military intelligence official said: “We have invoked emergency rules and the Army has taken control. But we continue to investigate a number of leads, including an unverified tip-off about at least two more vehicles with explosives.”
Asked about the challenges ahead, the official said: “There are two… a possible threat of retaliation from a section of Sinhalese Christian fringe groups, and tracing the origin of explosives. A curfew has been imposed from 9 pm Tuesday until 4 am Wednesday to prevent any mob attack or riot situation or retaliation in the night… security at mosques have also been tightened.”
But Shiral Lakthilaka, advisor and coordinating secretary at the Presidential Secretariat, told The Indian Express that the government will not allow “any retaliation to happen”. “The Army has been given powers to handle the situation, we will not tolerate any such attacks. I can promise that no communities will be targeted in any way,” he said.
Near Colombo, meanwhile, the first mass funeral was held at the damaged St Anthony’s Church in Negombo, where over a 100 people were killed in one of the blasts triggered by a suicide bomber. Hundreds of mourners reportedly attended the memorial service, which began with prayers in the courtyard.
In the capital, officials said the number of arrests linked to the blast had reached 40. Reports quoted Minister Wijewardene as saying that two local groups, National Thowheeth Jamaath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim, were also involved in the attacks.
Sources said one of the bombers, hailing from a wealthy business family, had been arrested in January after explosives were seized from a coconut farm in Puttalam district. He was among four persons arrested at the time, and was released soon after. The explosives and a large quantity of detonators were found in barrels buried in the 80-acre farm, sources said.
On Tuesday, questions continued to be asked of how the government failed to prevent the attacks despite a series of alerts. Reuters reported that one of these warnings was received from India “two hours before the first attack to warn of a specific threat on churches”.
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These questions echoed in Sri Lanka’s Parliament, too, where Prime Minister Wickremesinghe described the attacks as “global terrorism reaching Sri Lanka”. “The Muslim community is against these attacks. There are only a few who are involved in these attacks,” he said.
However, Opposition leader and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa blamed the government for the security failure. “When I handed over the government, it was free of terrorism. No such attack would have happened under my government,” he said.
On the streets of Colombo, the mood of national mourning was reflected in the silence, with most shops in Colombo remaining shut. The airport was also largely deserted Tuesday morning, with no queues at immigration counters. The only buzz outside was among a long line of staff and airport workers who were being physically checked, one after the other, by a huge Army team.
(With Nirupama Subramanian & agencies)