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15 dead as tips lead Sri Lanka forces to hideout

KALMUNAI, Sri Lanka: In this picture taken on Friday, security personnel inspect seized items after they raid a militant safe house. – AFP

COLOMBO: Fifteen people including six children died in a battle between Sri Lankan security forces and suicide bombers who blew themselves up in the latest fallout from the Easter attacks, police said yesterday. Three men set off explosives that killed themselves, three women and six children inside what was believed to be a militant hideout near the eastern town of Kalmunai. “Three other men, also believed to be suicide bombers, were found dead outside the house,” police said in a statement. They were shot dead by security forces, police officials added.

Security forces tried to storm the house late Friday and a one-hour long gun battle ensued before the explosions, a military official said. A civilian was also killed in the crossfire during the raid near the predominantly Muslim town. Hundreds of families later fled their homes. Police and troops have stepped up searches after the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attacks on three churches and three luxury hotels, which killed least 253 people and injured 500.

Kalmunai is in the same region as the home town of the jihadist Zahran Hashim who founded the group accused of staging the attacks. Police and officials said a series of tip offs after the arrest of Hashim’s driver, Mohamed Sharif Adam, in Hashim’s home town of Kathankudy led them to the safe house. Officials said the driver provided information leading to a raid on Friday on a hideout south of Kathankudy where they believe Hashim and other bombers recorded a video pledging allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi before carrying out the Easter attacks.

Video on state television showed explosives, a generator, a drone and a large quantity of batteries inside the converted studio. An IS flag and uniforms similar to those worn by the eight fighters in the video were also found, police said. That in turn provided a tip off about the hideout in Kalmunai, 370 km east of the capital. Authorities named Hashim’s group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), as the perpetrators of the attacks. They announced Friday that he had been killed in the bombing of the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo.

President Maithripala Sirisena used emergency powers to ban the NTJ and a splinter group identified as Jamathei Millathu Ibraheem (JMI), his office said in a statement yesterday. “All movable and immovable property of these two organizations will be confiscated,” the statement said. The government is on the defensive over its failure to heed a foreign intelligence warning that NTJ was planning suicide bombings on churches. Police chief Pujith Jayasundara became the second high-ranking official to resign over the blunders Friday, after top defense ministry official Hemasiri Fernando stepped down.

Sri Lanka’s Catholic leader, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, has said he felt “betrayed” by the government’s failure to act on the warnings. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe apologized on Friday. “We take collective responsibility and apologize to our fellow citizens for our failure to protect victims of these tragic events,” he wrote on Twitter.
Amidst fears of new attacks, the Roman Catholic church has suspended all public services across the country until security is guaranteed by the government. The archbishop, who has appealed to Catholics to stay home and say private prayers, is to hold a special mass at his official residence today which will be broadcast live on television. Some groups were expected to hold public vigils in Colombo and Negombo, where St Sebastian’s Church suffered some of the worst casualties in the bombings.

The military have poured troops onto the streets to back up police as they search for suspects using newly granted powers under a state of emergency. At least 94 people are in custody, including a man believed to be the father of two of the bombers. Authorities warned the hunt would continue. “We now have info that there are about 140 people in Sri Lanka linked to the Islamic State. We can and we will eradicate all of them very soon,” Sirisena said Friday, when he announced the new legislation to tackle extremist groups.
Dozens of foreigners died in the attacks and the government has said it expects the number of overseas tourists to fall by 30 percent this year, at a cost of $1.5 billion in revenues. Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera said the island – which depends on tourism as a cornerstone of its economy – could take up to two years to fully recover. The United States, Israel, Australia, India and Britain have all warned their citizens against visiting Sri Lanka. – AFP

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