Sri Lanka blames Islamist extremist group for Easter attacks as death toll hits 290

- AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, COLOMBO

Apr 23, 2019-

Sri Lanka said on Monday it believed a local Islamist extremist group was behind deadly suicide bomb blasts that killed nearly 300 people as it announced a national state of emergency beginning midnight.

Government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said investigators were looking at whether the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) group had “international support” for the deadly Easter Sunday attacks on churches and luxury hotels.

Wary of stirring ethnic and religious tensions, officials have provided few details about 24 people arrested since the attacks. Not much is known about the NTJ, but documents seen by AFP show Sri Lanka’s police chief issued a warning on April 11, saying a “foreign intelligence agency” had reported the group was planning attacks on churches and the Indian high commission.

The group has previously been linked to the vandalising of Buddhist statues.

The death toll from Sunday’s attacks rose dramatically Monday to 290 — including dozens of foreigners — in the country’s worst attacks for over a decade.

More than 500 people were injured in the assault that saw suicide bombers hit three high-end hotels popular with foreign tourists, and three churches, unleashing carnage in Colombo and beyond.

Two additional blasts were triggered as security forces carried out raids searching for suspects. As tension remained high, police on Monday said they had found 87 bomb detonators — 12 of them scattered on the ground at a bus station and another 75 in a nearby garbage dump.

The president’s office said a state of emergency “limited to counter terrorism regulations only” would be introduced from midnight Monday (1830 GMT).

“This is being done to allow the police and the three forces to ensure public security,” the statement said, referring to the army, navy and air force.

The government information department said a new curfew would run from 8:00 pm (1430 GMT) on Monday until 4:00 am on Tuesday.

The US State Department, meanwhile, warned of further attacks in a revised travel advisory, urging increased caution and adding: “Terrorist groups continue plotting possible attacks in Sri Lanka.”

The attacks were the worst ever carried out against Sri Lanka’s small Christian minority, who make up just seven percent of the 21 million population.

At least 37 foreigners were among the dead, citizens of India, Britain, Turkey, Australia, Japan and Portugal, as well as a dual US-British passport holder.

The churches targeted included St Sebastian’s in Negombo, north of the capital, which was surrounded by security forces on Monday.

Dozens of people were killed at the church, including friends of 16-year-old Primasha Fernando, who was at her home nearby when the suicide bomber struck. “When I got to the church there were people crying and screaming,” she told AFP. “I saw bodies everywhere,” she added in tears. “I saw parents carrying their dead babies. I saw dead people who had hair but didn’t have faces anymore.”

Published: 23-04-2019 11:04

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