Relatives carry a coffin for burial during the funerals of three members of the same family, all died at Easter Sunday bomb blast at St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, April 22, 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)

Easter bombings a response to New Zealand attacks, says Sri Lanka minister

The Islamic State group asserted it was responsible for the nine bombings

A top Sri Lanka official on Tuesday called the Easter attack on churches, hotels and other sites “retaliation” for the shooting massacre by a white supremacist at two New Zealand mosques last month, as the Islamic State group sought to claim responsibility for the attack.

Ruwan Wijewardene, the state minister of defence, told Parliament the government possessed information that the bombings were carried out “by an Islamic fundamentalist group” in response to the Christchurch attacks. He also blamed “weakness” within Sri Lanka’s security apparatus for failing to prevent the nine bombings.

“By now it has been established that the intelligence units were aware of this attack and a group of responsible people were informed about the impending attack,” Wijewardene said. “However, this information has been circulated among only a few officials.”

Wijewardene’s comments came shortly before the Islamic State group asserted it was responsible for the bombings in and outside of Colombo that killed over 320 people. But neither Wijewardene nor IS provided evidence to immediately support their claims, and authorities previously blamed a little-known Islamic extremist group in the island nation for the attack.

The office of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern issued a statement responding to the Christchurch claim that described Sri Lanka’s investigation as “in its early stages.”

“New Zealand has not yet seen any intelligence upon which such an assessment might be based,” it said. An Australian white supremacist, Brenton Harrison Tarrant, livestreamed the March 15 shootings.

Authorities announced a nationwide curfew would begin at 9 p.m. Tuesday.

READ MORE: Sri Lanka invokes war-time military powers after nearly 300 killed in Easter bombings

As Sri Lanka’s leaders wrangled with the implications of an apparent militant attack and massive intelligence failure, security was heightened Tuesday for a national day of mourning and the military was employing powers to make arrests it last used during a devastating civil war that ended in 2009.

The six near-simultaneous attacks on three churches and three luxury hotels and three related blasts later Sunday was Sri Lanka’s deadliest violence in a decade. Wijewardene said the death toll from the attack now stood at 321 people, with 500 wounded.

In some places, the violence struck entire families. On Easter Sunday, as they did every Sunday, Berlington Joseph Gomez and his wife, Chandrika Arumugam, went to church at Colombo’s St. Anthony’s Shrine. And as always, they brought their three sons: 9-year-old Bevon, 6-year-old Clavon and baby Avon, just 11 months old.

Two days later, they were all being mourned by dozens of neighbours gathered at the modest home of Berlington’s father, Joseph Gomez.

“All family, all generation, is lost,” Gomez said.

Word from international intelligence agencies that a local group was planning attacks apparently didn’t reach the prime minister’s office until after the massacre, exposing the continuing political turmoil in the highest levels of the Sri Lankan government.

On April 11, Priyalal Disanayaka, Sri Lanka’s deputy inspector general of police, signed a letter addressed to the directors of four Sri Lankan security agencies, warning them that a local group was planning a suicide attack in the country.

The intelligence report attached to his letter, which has circulated widely on social media, named the group allegedly plotting the attack, National Towheed Jamaar, identifying its leader as Zahran Hashmi, and said it was targeting “some important churches” in a suicide terrorist attack that was planned to take place “shortly.”

The report named six individuals likely to be involved in the plot, including someone it said had been building support for Zahran and was in hiding since the group clashed with another religious organization in March 2018.

On Monday, Sri Lanka’s health minister held up a copy of the intelligence report while describing its contents, spurring questions about what Sri Lanka police had done to protect the public from an attack.

It was not immediately clear what steps were taken by any of these security directors. Disanayaka did not answer calls or messages seeking comment.

Among the 40 people arrested on suspicion of links to the bombings were the driver of a van allegedly used by the suicide attackers and the owner of a house where some of them lived.

Heightened security was evident at an international airport outside the capital where security personnel walked explosive-sniffing dogs and checked car trunks and questioned drivers on roads nearby. Police also ordered that anyone leaving a parked car unattended on the street must put a note with their phone number on the windscreen, and postal workers were not accepting pre-wrapped parcels.

A block on most social media since the attacks has left a vacuum of information, fueling confusion and giving little reassurance the danger had passed. Even after an overnight curfew was lifted, the streets of central Colombo were mostly deserted Tuesday and shops closed as armed soldiers stood guard.

READ MORE: Canadians in Sri Lanka told to use extreme caution after bombings

READ MORE: Global Affairs warns Canadians in Sri Lanka there could be more attacks

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the massacre could unleash instability and he vowed to “vest all necessary powers with the defence forces” to act against those responsible.

Authorities said they knew where the group trained and had safe houses, but did not identify any of the seven suicide bombers, whose bodies were recovered, or the other suspects taken into custody. All seven bombers were Sri Lankans, but authorities said they strongly suspected foreign links.

Later Tuesday, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the Sri Lanka attack via its Aamaq news agency, but offered no photographs or videos of attackers pledging their loyalty to the group. Such material, often showing suicide bombers pledging loyalty before their assaults, offer credibility to their claims.

The group, which has lost all the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria, has made a series of unsupported claims of responsibility. It recently offered its first claim of an attack in Congo.

Also unclear in Sunday’s attack was the motive. The history of Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, a country of 21 million including large Hindu, Muslim and Christian minorities, is rife with ethnic and sectarian conflict.

In the nation’s 26-year civil war, the Tamil Tigers, a powerful rebel army known for using suicide bombers, had little history of targeting Christians and was crushed by the government in 2009. Anti-Muslim bigotry fed by Buddhist nationalists has swept the country recently.

In March 2018, Buddhist mobs ransacked businesses and set houses on fire in Muslim neighbourhoods around Kandy, a city in central Sri Lanka that is popular with tourists.

After the mob attacks, Sri Lanka’s government also blocked some social media sites, hoping to slow the spread of false information or threats that could incite more violence.

Sri Lanka, though, has no history of Islamic militancy. Its small Christian community has seen only scattered incidents of harassment.

___

Associated Press journalists Bharatha Mallawarachi, Jon Gambrell and Rishabh Jain in Colombo and Gemunu Amarasinghe in Negombo, Sri Lanka, contributed to this report.

___

Emily Schmall And Krishan Francis, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Charge laid in Abbotsford motorcycle crash that killed Maple Ridge woman

Megan Kinnee, 19, died in collision on July 13, 2018

Two-vehicle collision on Maple Ridge road

Pickup narrowly misses bus stop

Man stuck on trail in Golden Ears park

Ridge Meadows Search and Rescue reach him at 1:30 a.m.

Big Chill a hot event in Langley

Flight Museum holds “ask the pilot panel” and demos flights for young pilots over the weekend

‘Bad choices make good stories’: Margaret Trudeau brings her show to Just for Laughs

Trudeau says over the decades she has been suicidal, manic, depressed

UPDATE: Youth seen with gun at Nanaimo mall, suspect now in custody

Woodgrove Centre shut down during police incident

B.C. man dies from rabies after contact with Vancouver Island bat

Last known case of human rabies in B.C. was 16 years ago

Crown recommends up to two-year jail term for former Bountiful leader

Crown says sentence range should be 18 months to two years for Bountiful child removal case

B.C.-wide police efforts identify Vancouver Island robbery suspect

Warrant issued for arrest of North Vancouver man for TD Bank robbery

VIDEO: Wolf spotted swimming ashore on northern Vancouver Island

Island wolf population estimated at under 150 in 2008, says VI-Wilds

Diversity a Canadian strength, Trudeau says of Trump tweets at congresswomen

Trudeau avoided using Trump’s name when he was asked about the president’s Twitter comments

B.C. couple bring son home from Nigeria after long adoption delay

Kim and Clark Moran of Abbotsford spent almost a year waiting to finalize adoption of Ayo, 3

Garneau ‘disappointed’ in airlines’ move against new passenger bill of rights

New rules codified compensation for lost luggage, overbooked flights

Most Read