Sri Lanka police arrest 23 for targeting Muslims after Easter bombings

Sri Lankan soldiers patrol a road of Hettipola after a mob attack in a mosque in the nearby village of Kottampitiya, Sri Lanka May 14, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Alexandra Ulmer and Omar Rajarathnam

KOTTAMPITIYA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) – Sri Lankan police arrested 23 people on Tuesday in connection with a spate of attacks on Muslim-owned homes and shops in apparent reprisal for the Easter bombings by Islamist militants that killed more than 250 people.

Soldiers in armored vehicles patrolled the towns hit by sectarian violence this week as residents recalled how Muslims had hid in paddy fields to escape mobs carrying rods and swords, incensed over the militant attacks.

The April 21 attacks, claimed by Islamic State, targeted churches and hotels, mostly in Colombo, killing more than 250 people and fuelling fears of a backlash against the island nation’s minority Muslims.

Mobs moved through towns in Sri Lanka’s northwest on motorbikes and in buses, ransacking mosques, burning Korans and attacking shops with petrol bombs in rioting that began on Sunday, Muslim residents said.

Police said they arrested 23 people from across the island for inciting violence against Muslims, who make up less than 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people who are predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists.

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said the situation is under control and no new incidents had been reported on Tuesday.

But a nationwide curfew from 9 p.m. (1530 GMT) to 4 a.m. would be in effect for a second night.

The lone fatality was a man killed while trying to protect his home from attack.

When mobs arrived in the Kottramulla area on Monday evening, Mohamed Salim Fowzul Ameer, 49, went outside while his wife, Fatima Jiffriya, stayed with their four children.

Jiffriya, 37, then heard shouts and sounds of fighting.

“I opened the door to see my husband on the ground in a pool of blood, the police right in front and the mob running,” she said.

“His heart was still beating hard, I took him into my lap and started to scream for help,” she added, her voice breaking, as women consoled her children at an uncle’s house ahead of Ameer’s burial.

DEEP DIVISIONS

Sri Lanka has had a history of ethnic and religious violence and was torn for decades by a civil war between separatists from the mostly Hindu Tamil minority and the Sinhala Buddhist-dominated government.

In recent years, Buddhist hardliners, led by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or “Buddhist Power Force”, have stoked hostility against Muslims, saying influences from the Middle East had made Sri Lanka’s Muslims more conservative and isolated.

Last year, scores of Muslim mosques, homes and businesses were destroyed as Buddhist mobs ran amok for three days in Kandy, the central highlands district previously known for its diversity and tolerance.

Muslims said this week’s violence was more widespread.

Residents in the town of Kottampitiya recalled how a group of about a dozen people had arrived in taxis and attacked Muslim-owned stores with stones just after midday on Monday, with the mob soon swelling to 200, and then 1,000.

The mob attacked the main mosque, 17 Muslim-owned businesses and 50 homes, witnesses said.

“The Muslim community huddled in nearby paddy fields, that’s how no one died,” said one of a group of men gathered outside the white-and-green mosque with smashed windows and doors.

Abdul Bari, 48, told Reuters his small brick shop had been burned down with a petrol bomb. “The attackers were on motorbikes, armed with rods and swords,” he added.

Others blamed the police for failing to disperse the crowd.

“The police were watching. They were in the street, they didn’t stop anything. They told us to go inside,” said Mohamed Faleel, 47, who runs a car paint business.

“We asked police, we said stop them. They didn’t fire. They had to stop this, but they didn’t,” he added.

Police spokesman Gunasekera rejected allegations that police had stood by while the violence unfolded. He said the perpetrators would be punished.

“All police officers have been instructed to take stern action against the violators, even to use the maximum force. Perpetrators could face up to a 10-year jail term,” he said.

A police source said seven of those arrested for the violence in Kottampitiya were young Sinhalese men from nearby Buddhist villages.

“They were leading the charge yesterday. They were instructing people on which stores to attack,” said the police source.

The men said they were seeking revenge for the militant attack in the city of Negombo, where over 100 people were killed at the St. Sebastian’s Church during Easter prayers, the police source said.

A court remanded the men to police custody on Tuesday. They could not be reached for comment.

(Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; editing by Clarence Fernandez and Darren Schuettler)

Sri Lanka imposes nationwide curfew after mosques attacked

A Muslim man stands inside the Abbraar Masjid mosque after a mob attack in Kiniyama, Sri Lanka May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Alexandra Ulmer and Omar Rajarathnam

KINIYAMA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) – Sri Lankan police fired tear gas at mobs attacking mosques and shops owned by Muslims on Monday and imposed a nationwide curfew after the worst outbreak of sectarian violence since the Easter bombings by Islamist militants.

The militants targeted churches and hotels, most of them in Colombo, killing more than 250 people in an attack claimed by Islamic State and fuelling fears of a backlash against the island nation’s minority Muslims.

Residents in Muslim parts of North Western Province said mobs had attacked mosques and damaged shops and businesses owned by Muslims for a second day.

“There are hundreds of rioters, police and army are just watching. They have burnt our mosques and smashed many shops owned by Muslims,” a resident of Kottampitiya area told Reuters by telephone, asking not to be identified for fear of reprisals.

“When we try to come out of our house, police tell us to stay inside.”

Police imposed a nationwide curfew until from 9 p.m. (1530 GMT) to 4 a.m., spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said.

Authorities also imposed a temporary ban on social media networks and messaging apps including WhatsApp after a clash in another part of the country was traced to a dispute on Facebook.

A police source said police had fired tear gas to disperse mobs in some places in North Western Province.

Muslims make up nearly 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people who are predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists.

A Reuters reporter saw a mob of several dozen young Sinhalese men wielding sticks and rods in what appeared to be a standoff in the town of Madulla in North Western Province.

Many anxious Muslims were hunkering down at home but young men, some of them carrying rods, were still zipping around on motorbikes, despite regional curfews from 2 p.m. before the nationwide curfew was imposed.

Abbraar Masjid mosque is seen after a mob attack in Kiniyama, Sri Lanka May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Abbraar Masjid mosque is seen after a mob attack in Kiniyama, Sri Lanka May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

MOSQUE RANSACKED

Glass was strewn across the Abrar mosque in the town of Kiniyama that was attacked overnight. All the windows and doors of the soft-pink building were smashed and copies of the Koran were thrown onto the floor.

A mosque official said the attacks were triggered when several people, including some Buddhist monks, demanded a search of the main building after soldiers had inspected a 105-acre (43-hectare) lake nearby.

Authorities suspect lakes and wells are being used as hiding places to conceal weapons.

A 34-year-old man who was at the mosque said about 150-200 came toward the mosque with rods and swords on Sunday but the Muslims who were in the mosque persuaded them to go away with the help of the police.

But they came back and this time there were about 1,300 people. The Muslims, huddled in the mosque, asked the police to fire in the air to disperse the mob, but the police said the people wanted to inspect the mosque for weapons.

Then the crowd surged into the mosque and ransacked it, the witness said.

“They destroyed and burned Korans, broke every glass window and door and urinated on the water storage which Muslims used to take ablution,” he said.

Police spokesman Gunasekera did not respond to a request for comment on the incident. But in an emailed statement he said there had been some damage to property in Hettipola area of Kurunegala district but no injuries reported.

The police source said police also fired in the air the Hettipola area.

Several dozen people threw stones at mosques and Muslim-owned stores and a man was beaten in the Christian-majority town of Chilaw on the west coast on Sunday in the dispute that started on Facebook, police sources and residents told Reuters.

Authorities said they arrested the author of a Facebook post, identified as 38-year-old Abdul Hameed Mohamed Hasmar, whose online comment “1 day u will cry” people said was interpreted as threatening violence.

“Social media blocked again as a temporary measure to maintain peace in the country,” Nalaka Kaluwewa, director general of the government information department, told Reuters on Monday.

On Twitter, Sri Lanka’s leading mobile phone operator, Dialog Axiata Plc, said it had also received instructions to block the apps Viber, IMO, Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube until further notice.

(Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez, Ranga Sirilal; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Alison Williams)

Father, two brothers of suspected Sri Lanka bombings mastermind killed in gun battle

A police officer inspects the site of a gun battle between troops and suspected Islamist militants, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, in Kalmunai, April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Alasdair Pal and Shri Navaratnam

KALMUNAI/COLOMBO (Reuters) – The father and two brothers of the suspected mastermind of Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday bombings were killed when security forces stormed their safe house on the east coast two days ago, police and a relative said on Sunday.

Zainee Hashim, Rilwan Hashim and their father Mohamed Hashim, who appear in a video circulating on social media calling for all-out war against non-believers, were among at least 15 killed in a fierce gun battle with the military on the east coast on Friday.

Kamal Jayanathdhi, the officer in charge at Kalmunai police station on the east coast, confirmed the three men had died along with a child that appears in the video, and that the undated clip in which they discuss martyrdom, had been shot in the same house where the gun battle took place.

Two people who were inside the house, a woman and a seven-year-old girl believed to be relatives of the men, survived, he said, while a woman was killed in crossfire on a nearby street.

Niyaz Sharif, the brother-in-law of Zahran Hashim, the suspected ringleader of the wave of Easter Sunday bombings that killed over 250 people in churches and hotels across the island nation, told Reuters the video showed Zahran’s two brothers and father.

Sri Lanka has been on high alert since the attacks on Easter Sunday, with nearly 10,000 soldiers deployed across the island to carry out searches and hunt down members of two local Islamist groups believed to have carried out the attack.

Authorities have detained more than 100 people, including foreigners from Syria and Egypt since the April 21 bombings.

On Sunday police in the eastern town of Kattankudy raided a mosque founded by Zahran which doubled up as the headquarters of his group, the National Thawheedh Jamaath (NTJ).

HOLY WAR

In the video, Rilwan Hashim is seen calling for ‘jihad’ or holy war, while children cry in the background.

“We will destroy these non-believers to protect this land and therefore we need to do jihad,” Rilwan says in the video, sitting beside his brother and father.

“We need to teach a proper lesson for these non-believers who have been destroying Muslims.”

Rilwan, who has a damaged eye and badly disfigured hand in the video, had recently been injured while making a bomb, Jayanathdhi said.

On Sunday, when Reuters visited the house, police were sifting through the wreckage, taking fingerprints and video footage.

Watermelon rinds and a box of dates were still on the kitchen counter, while four pairs of children’s flip-flops were by the front door.

But in the main room, where the three men filmed the video, a huge crater had punched a hole in the concrete floor, while bloodstains covered the wall.

LOCAL VIGILANCE

Two men had moved into the three-room rented house in the Sainthamaruthu area of Kalmunai, days before the Easter Sunday attacks, police and locals said. After more people arrived, locals grew suspicious, said Mohammed Majid, the secretary of the Grand Masjid Sainthamaruthu, one of the town’s main mosques.

After evening prayers on Friday, a group of men from the local Hijra Mosque came to the house to question the occupants.

When one man brandished an assault rifle, the men fled, alerting police who arrived shortly afterward. One man was killed after running into the street with a gun to confront police, while a series of explosions came from the house, eyewitnesses said.

DANGER REMAINS

Authorities suspect there may be more suicide bombers on the loose. Defense authorities have so far focused their investigations on international links to two domestic groups they believe carried out the attacks, the National Thawheedh Jamaath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim.

At a nearby house where police seized more explosives and a flag of the Islamic State on Friday, locals said they feared more violence.

“People were coming and going but we didn’t know their names,” said Juneedha Hasanar, who runs a shop at the bottom of the street, yards from the house. “Now we are afraid.”

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Easter bombings, and on Sunday the group said three of its members clashed with Sri Lankan police for several hours in Friday’s gun battle on the east coast before detonating their explosive vests, the militant group’s news agency Amaq said.

The group said 17 policemen were killed or injured in the attack, but the Sri Lankan military has denied this. A police source told Reuters two policemen were slightly injured in the battle.

Police have said six children were among the other 12 people who died in the gun battle, and on Sunday recovered the partial remains of a child no more than a few months old.

(Reporting Shri Navaratnam, Shihar Aneez, Ranga Sirilal in COLOMBO and Alasdair Pal in KALMUNNAI; editing by Richard Pullin and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Sri Lankan police hunt 140 people after Easter bombings

Sri Lankan Special Task Force soldiers stand guard in front of a mosque as a muslim man walks past him during the Friday prayers at a mosque, five days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on Catholic churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 26, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Sanjeev Miglani and Ranga Sirilal

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lankan police are trying to track down 140 people believed linked to Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday suicide bombings of churches and hotels that killed 253 people, President Maithripala Sirisena said on Friday.

Muslims in Sri Lanka were urged to pray at home and not after the State Intelligence Services warned of possible car bomb attacks, amid fears of retaliatory violence.

The U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka also urged its citizens to avoid places of worship over the weekend after authorities reported there could be more attacks targeting religious centers.

Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith told reporters he had seen a leaked internal security document warning of further attacks on churches and there would be no Catholic masses this Sunday anywhere on the island.

The streets of Colombo were deserted on Friday evening, with many people leaving offices early amid tight security after the suicide bombing attacks on three churches and four hotels that also wounded about 500 people.

Nearly 10,000 soldiers were deployed across the Indian Ocean island state to carry out searches and provide security for religious centers, the military said on Friday.

The All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ullama, Sri Lanka’s main Islamic religious body, urged Muslims to conduct prayers at home in case “there is a need to protect family and properties”.

Police have detained at least 76 people, including foreigners from Syria and Egypt, in their investigations so far.

Islamic State provided no evidence to back its claim that it was behind the attacks. If true, it would be one of the worst attacks carried out by the group outside Iraq and Syria.

The extremist group released a video on Tuesday showing eight men, all but one with their faces covered, standing under a black Islamic State flag and declaring their loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

DEFENCE, POLICE CHIEFS QUIT

The Sri Lankan government said nine homegrown, well-educated suicide bombers carried out the attacks, eight of whom had been identified. One was a woman.

Sirisena told reporters on Friday some Sri Lankan youths had been involved with Islamic State since 2013. He said information uncovered so far suggested there were 140 people in Sri Lanka involved in Islamic State activities.

“Police are looking to arrest them,” Sirisena said.

Authorities have so far focused their investigations on international links to two domestic Islamist groups – National Thawheed Jama’ut and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim – they believe carried out the attacks.

Government officials have acknowledged a major lapse in not widely sharing an intelligence warning from India before the attacks.

Sirisena said top defense and police chiefs had not shared information with him about the impending attacks. Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando resigned over the failure to prevent the attacks.

“The police chief said he will resign now,” Sirisena said.

He blamed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government for weakening the intelligence system by focusing on the prosecution of military officers over alleged war crimes during a decade-long civil war with Tamil separatists that ended in 2009.

Sirisena fired Wickremesinghe in October over political differences, only to reinstate him weeks later under pressure from the Supreme Court.

Opposing factions aligned to Wickremesinghe and Sirisena have often refused to communicate with each other and blame any setbacks on their opponents, government sources say.

Cardinal Ranjith said that the church had been kept in the dark about intelligence warning of attacks.

“We didn’t know anything. It came as a thunderbolt for us,” he said.

The Easter Sunday bombings shattered the relative calm that had existed in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka since the civil war against mostly Hindu ethnic Tamil separatists ended.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people include minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Until now, Christians had largely managed to avoid the worst of the island’s conflict and communal tensions.

Most of the victims were Sri Lankans, although authorities said at least 38 foreigners were also killed, many of them tourists sitting down to breakfast at top-end hotels when the bombers struck.

They included British, U.S., Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals. Britain warned its nationals on Thursday to avoid Sri Lanka unless it was absolutely necessary.

Fears of retaliatory sectarian violence have already caused Muslim communities to flee their homes amid bomb scares, lockdowns and security sweeps.

But at the Kollupitiya Jumma Masjid mosque, tucked away in a Colombo side street, hundreds attended a service they say was focused on a call for people of all religions to help return peace to Sri Lanka.

“It’s a very sad situation,” said 28-year-old sales worker Raees Ulhaq, as soldiers hurried on dawdling worshippers and sniffer dogs nosed their way through pot-holed lanes.

“We work with Christians, Buddhists, Hindus. It has been a threat for all of us because of what these few people have done to this beautiful country.”

 

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani and Joe Brock; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)

Sri Lanka security authorities were trying to head off bombers when they struck: official

A man comes to the site of a mass burial to pay his respects to victims of a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday, in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 25, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Ranga Sirilal and Shihar Aneez

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lanka’s top defense official said on Thursday that security agencies had been working to stop militant attacks in the days before Easter Sunday bombings that killed 359 people, and he was resigning to take responsibility for the failure.

The suicide bomb attacks on three churches and four hotels exposed a significant intelligence failure, with warnings of strikes not acted on and accusations of feuds at the highest levels of government undermining security cooperation.

Police issued names and photographs of seven people, three of them women, wanted in connection with the attacks, as bomb scares and security sweeps kept the country on edge.

“We were working on that. All those agencies were working on that,” Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando told Reuters, referring to intelligence tips from India warning of imminent strikes that came in over the days before the blasts.

Fernando, the top civil servant at the government’s defense department, said he had resigned to take responsibility for institutions he was in charge of, though he added there had been no failure on his part.

The Islamic State militant group claimed responsibility for the coordinated attacks. If that connection is confirmed, it looks likely to be the deadliest ever such attack linked to the group.

Most of the victims were Sri Lankans, although authorities have said at least 38 foreigners were also killed, many of them tourists sitting down to breakfast at top-end hotels when the bombers struck.

They included British, U.S., Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals.

About 500 people were wounded.

Authorities have focused their investigations on international links to two domestic Islamist groups – National Thawheed Jama’ut and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim – they believe carried out the attacks.

Islamic State released a video that showed eight men, all but one with their faces covered, standing under a black Islamic State flag and declaring their loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

The government said there were nine suicide bombers, eight of whom had been identified, and that one was a woman.

SNAPSHOTS

A picture has emerged of a group of nine well-educated, home-grown suicide bombers. Two of them were brothers, sons of a wealthy spice trader and pillar of the business community, a source close to the family said.

One studied in Britain and Australia.

At least 76 people, including several foreigners, have been rounded up since Sunday, but police on Thursday for the first time identified seven people they were looking for and appealed to the public for help in finding them.

Photographs, apparently casual snapshots, posted with a wanted notice showed young bearded men, one with a Muslim cap, and three young women, all with head scarves.

Fears that more bombers are at large has kept Sri Lanka on edge all week.

Authorities locked down the central bank and shut the road to the capital’s airport for part of the day because of bomb scares as communal tension simmered.

Office workers in Colombo’s business district were asked to go home early, police said, to avoid vulnerable throngs of people at rush hour. City-center restaurants were also shutting early.

Police also arrested three people and seized 21 locally made grenades and six swords during a raid in Colombo, a spokesman said. He did not give details or suggest that the raid was linked to the suicide bombings.

RECRIMINATIONS

The bombings shattered the relative calm that has existed in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka since a civil war against mostly Hindu, ethnic Tamil separatists ended 10 years ago, and raised fears of a return to sectarian violence.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people include minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Until now, Christians had largely managed to avoid the worst of the island’s conflict and communal tensions.

It seems unlikely that Fernando’s resignation will end the questions and recriminations over why authorities failed to act more effectively to stop the plotters.

Government officials have acknowledged a major lapse in the sharing of intelligence information. Lakshman Kiriella, the leader of parliament, said senior officials had deliberately withheld the intelligence from India about possible attacks.

Both President Maithripala Sirisena and his rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, denied seeing the Indian intelligence warnings, officials have said.

The president fired Wickremesinghe last October over political differences, only to reinstate him weeks later under pressure from the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, fears are growing of a surge of communal tension.

Muslims have fled the Negombo region on Sri Lanka’s west coast since scores of worshippers were killed in the bombing of the St. Sebastian church there on Sunday.

Hundreds of Pakistani Muslims have left the port city, crammed into buses, after threats of revenge.

“The local Sri Lankan people have attacked our houses,” one of them, Adnan Ali, told Reuters on Wednesday, as he prepared to board a bus.

 

(Reporting by Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal; Additional reporting by Sanjeev Miglani in COLOMBO, Alasdair Pal and Sunil Kataria in NEGOMBO, Sri Lanka, and Will Ziebell in MELBOURNE; Writing by Paul Tait and Robert Birsel; Editing by Michael Perry and Alex Richardson)

Picture emerges of well-to-do young bombers behind Sri Lankan carnage

Coffins are laid in the ground during a mass burial for victims at a cemetery near St Sebastian's Church in Negombo, three days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Sri Lanka April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

By Sanjeev Miglani and Joe Brock

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Details began to emerge in Sri Lanka on Wednesday of a band of nine, well-educated Islamist suicide bombers, including a woman, from well-to-do families who slaughtered 359 people in Easter Sunday bomb attacks.

The Islamic State militant group claimed responsibility for the coordinated attacks on three churches and four hotels. If that connection is confirmed, the attacks looks likely to be the deadliest ever linked to the group.

Both the Sri Lankan government and the United States said the scale and sophistication of the coordinated bombings suggested the involvement of an external group such as Islamic State.

The Islamist group released a video late on Tuesday through its AMAQ news agency, showing eight men, all but one with their faces covered, standing under a black Islamic State flag, declaring loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

The one man in the video with his face uncovered was Mohamed Zahran, a Sri Lankan preacher known for militant views.

While the video showed eight men, Sri Lanka’s junior defense minister, Ruwan Wijewardene, said there were nine suicide bombers. Eight had been identified and one of them was a woman, he said.

“Most of the bombers are well-educated, come from economically strong families. Some of them went abroad for studies,” Wijewardene told a news conference.

“One of them we know went to the UK, then went to Australia for a law degree. Foreign partners, including the UK, are helping us with those investigations.”

Two of the bombers were brothers, sons of a wealthy spice trader and pillar of the business community, a source close to the family said.

Intelligence officials and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe believe that Zahran, a Tamil-speaking preacher from the east of the Indian Ocean island country, may have been the mastermind.

He was well-known for his militant views and fiery Facebook posts, according to Muslim leaders and a Sri Lankan intelligence report issued earlier and seen by Reuters.

The government suspects two Sri Lankan Islamist groups – the National Thawheed Jama’ut, of which Zahran was believed to have been a member, and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim – were responsible, with outside help.

MISSED WARNINGS

The early Sunday bombings shattered the relative calm that has existed in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka since a civil war against mostly Hindu, ethnic Tamil separatists ended 10 years ago, and raised fears of a return to sectarian violence.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people include minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Until now, Christians had largely managed to avoid the worst of the island’s conflict and communal tensions.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and military were also supporting the investigation into possible foreign connections, the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, Alaina Teplitz, told reporters.

“If you look at the scale of the attacks, the level of coordination, the sophistication of them, it’s not implausible to think there are foreign linkages,” Teplitz said.

As well as the huge death toll, 500 people were wounded in the worst ever such militant attack in South Asia.

It has also exposed a significant Sri Lankan intelligence failure, with warnings of strikes not acted on and feuds at the highest levels of government.

“It is a major lapse in the sharing of intelligence information,” Wijewardene said. “We have to take responsibility.”

Lakshman Kiriella, the leader of parliament, said senior officials had deliberately withheld intelligence about possible attacks.

A soldier looks on during the funural of eight-month-old Mathew, who died during a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday, in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

A soldier looks on during the funural of eight-month-old Mathew, who died during a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday, in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

“The top brass security officials did not take appropriate actions,” Kiriella, who is also minister of public enterprise, told parliament.

He said information about possible attacks was received from Indian intelligence on April 4 and a Security Council meeting was chaired by President Maithripala Sirisena three days later, but it was not shared more widely.

Sirisena has said his office never received the Indian report. The prime minister also had not been told of warnings of an attack, a minister said.

The president fired Prime Minister Wickremesinghe last October over political differences, only to reinstate him weeks later under pressure from the Supreme Court.

Two sources close to the president said he had asked the police chief and defense secretary to resign.

‘CHECKING ON MUSLIM AREAS’

A total of 60 people have been detained for questioning across Colombo, Wijewardene said. That total includes a Syrian, according to security sources.

Raids included areas near the Gothic-style St Sebastian church in Negombo, north of the capital, where scores were killed on Sunday, a police spokesman said.

An unspecified number of people were detained in western Sri Lanka, the scene of anti-Muslim riots in 2014.

“Search operations are going on everywhere, there is tight checking of Muslim areas,” a security source said.

Most of those killed and wounded were Sri Lankans, although officials said 38 foreigners were also killed. That included British, U.S., Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals. Forty-five children were among the dead.

The government has imposed emergency rule and an overnight curfew. It said it has also blocked online messaging services to stop the spread of inflammatory rumors that it feared could incite communal clashes.

 

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)

Scale, sophistication of Sri Lanka attack point to foreign links: U.S. ambassador

Friends and relatives carry the coffins of eight-month-old Mathew and his grandmother Agnes Vnikpridha, 69, who died during a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday, at their funeral in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Sanjeev Miglani and Joe Brock

COLOMBO (Reuters) – The scale and sophistication of the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka suggested the involvement of an external group such as Islamic State, the U.S. ambassador said on Wednesday, as the death toll from the bombings rose to 359.

The Islamic State militant group claimed responsibility for the coordinated attacks on three churches and four hotels, and details have begun to emerge of a band of nine, well-educated suicide bombers, including a woman, from well-to-do families.

Sri Lankan officials have blamed two domestic Islamist groups with suspected ties to Islamic State.

“If you look at the scale of the attacks, the level of coordination, the sophistication of them, it’s not implausible to think there are foreign linkages,” the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, Alaina Teplitz, told reporters in Colombo.

“Exploring potential linkages is going to be part of (investigations),” she said.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and military were supporting the investigation, she said. Britain was also sending a team to help, Sri Lanka said.

Teplitz’s comments came as Sri Lanka’s junior defense minister, Ruwan Wijewardene, conceded that there had been a significant intelligence failure before the attacks, with reports of warnings of strikes not acted on and feuds at the highest levels of government.

“It is a major lapse in the sharing of intelligence information,” Wijewardene told a separate news conference. “We have to take responsibility.”

President Maithripala Sirisena had asked the police chief and defense secretary to quit, two sources close to the president said.

MISSED WARNINGS

Lakshman Kiriella, the leader of parliament, said senior officials had deliberately withheld intelligence about possible attacks.

“Some top intelligence officials hid the intelligence information purposefully … the top brass security officials did not take appropriate actions,” Kiriella, who is also minister of public enterprise, told parliament.

He said information about possible suicide attacks was received from Indian intelligence on April 4 and a Security Council meeting was chaired by President Maithripala Sirisena three days later, but it was not shared more widely.

Police said the death toll had risen overnight to 359 from 321, making it the deadliest such attack in South Asian history. About 500 people were wounded.

Islamic State also released a video late on Tuesday through its AMAQ news agency, showing eight men, all but one with their faces covered, standing under a black Islamic State flag, declaring loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

The one man in the video with his face uncovered was Mohamed Zahran, a Sri Lankan preacher known for militant views.

If the Islamic State connection is confirmed, it would be the deadliest ever such overseas attack linked to the group.

LAW DEGREE

The early Sunday bombings shattered the relative calm that has existed in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka since a civil war against mostly Hindu, ethnic Tamil separatists ended 10 years ago, and raised fears of a return to sectarian violence.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people include minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Until now, Christians had largely managed to avoid the worst of the island’s conflict and communal tensions.

While the Islamic State video showed eight men, Wijewardene said there were nine suicide bombers. Eight had been identified and one of them was a woman, he said.

“Most of the bombers are well-educated, come from economically strong families. Some of them went abroad for studies,” Wijewardene said.

“One of them we know went to the UK, then went to Australia for a law degree. Foreign partners, including the UK, are helping us with those investigations.”

Wijewardene told parliament on Tuesday that two Sri Lankan Islamist groups – the National Thawheed Jama’ut and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim – were responsible for the blasts. He said on Wednesday the leader of one of those groups blew himself up in the attack on the luxury Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo.

A total of 60 people had been detained for questioning across Colombo since Sunday, Wijewardene said. That total includes a Syrian, according to security sources.

Police searched more homes overnight, leading to the detention of 18 more people.

The overnight raids included areas near the Gothic-style St Sebastian church in Negombo, north of the capital, where scores were killed on Sunday, a police spokesman said.

An unspecified number of people were detained in western Sri Lanka, the scene of anti-Muslim riots in 2014.

“Search operations are going on everywhere, there is tight checking of Muslim areas,” a security source said.

Most of those killed and wounded were Sri Lankans, although officials said 38 foreigners were also killed. That included British, U.S., Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals. Forty-five children were among the dead.

The government has imposed emergency rule and an overnight curfew. It said it has also blocked online messaging services to stop the spread of inflammatory rumours that it feared could incite communal clashes.

(GRAPHIC: Sri Lanka bombings – https://tmsnrt.rs/2Xy02BA)

(GRAPHIC: A decade of peace shattered – https://tmsnrt.rs/2W4wZoU)

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)

Exclusive: Sri Lanka warned of threat hours before suicide attacks – sources

People react during a mass burial of victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, at a cemetery near St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Shihar Aneez, Ranga Sirilal, Joe Brock and Sanjeev Miglani

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lankan intelligence officials were tipped off about an imminent attack by Islamist militants hours before a series of suicide bombings killed more than 300 people on Easter Sunday, three sources with direct knowledge of the matter said.

Three churches and four hotels were hit by suicide bombers on Sunday morning, killing 321 people and wounding 500, sending shockwaves through an island state that has been relatively peaceful since a civil war ended a decade ago.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks on Tuesday, without providing evidence of its involvement.

Indian intelligence officers contacted their Sri Lankan counterparts two hours before the first attack to warn of a specific threat on churches, one Sri Lankan defense source and an Indian government source said.

Another Sri Lankan defense source said a warning came “hours before” the first strike.

One of the Sri Lankan sources said a warning was also sent by the Indians on Saturday night. The Indian government source said similar messages had been given to Sri Lankan intelligence agents on April 4 and April 20.

Sri Lanka’s presidency and the Indian foreign ministry both did not respond to requests for comment.

Sri Lanka’s failure to effectively respond to a looming Islamist threat will fuel fears that a rift between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena is undermining national security.

The president fired Wickremesinghe last October over political differences, only to reinstate him weeks later under pressure from the Supreme Court.

Opposing factions aligned to Wickremesinghe and Sirisenahave often refuse to communicate with each other and blame any setbacks on their opponents, government sources say.

Sri Lankan police had been warned weeks ago about possible attacks by a little-known domestic Islamist group, according to an Indian intelligence report given to Sri Lankan state intelligence services, and seen by Reuters.

Sirisena, announcing plans on Tuesday to change the heads of the defense forces, said his office never received the Indian report.

Junior Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardene, an ally of Wickremesinghe, told Reuters that he was also not privy to the Indian intelligence findings.

(Reporting by Shihar Aneez, Ranga Sirilal, Joe Brock and Sanjeev Miglani; Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Bombs kill more than 200 in Sri Lankan churches, hotels on Easter Sunday

Foreign relatives of a victim of the explosion react at the police mortuary in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Ranga Sirilal and Shihar Aneez

COLOMBO (Reuters) – More than 200 people were killed and at least 450 injured in bomb blasts that ripped through churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, the first major attack on the Indian Ocean island since the end of a civil war 10 years ago.

Crime scene officials inspect the explosion area at Shangri-La hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Crime scene officials inspect the explosion area at Shangri-La hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

The government declared a curfew in Colombo and blocked access to social media and messaging sites, including Facebook and WhatsApp. It was unclear when the curfew would be lifted.

But in a sign that the attacks on three churches and four hotels could lead to communal violence, police reported on Sunday night that there had been a petrol bomb attack on a mosque in the northwestern district of Puttalum and arson attacks on two shops owned by Muslims in the western district of Kalutara.

The government has acknowledged that it had “prior information” of attacks on churches involving a little known local Islamist group but didn’t do enough about it.

Out of Sri Lanka’s total population of around 22 million, 70 percent are Buddhist, 12.6 percent Hindu, 9.7 percent Muslim and 7.6 percent Christian, according to the country’s 2012 census.

In February-March last year, there were a series of religious clashes between Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims in the towns of Ampara and Kandy.

Sri Lankan military officials stand guard in front of the St. Anthony's Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 21,2019.REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Sri Lankan military officials stand guard in front of the St. Anthony’s Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 21,2019.REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

POLICE KILLED

On Sunday afternoon, three police officers were killed during a security forces raid on a house in the Sri Lankan capital several hours after the attacks, many of which officials said were suicide bomb explosions. Police reported an explosion at the house.

Thirteen arrests have been made, all of whom are Sri Lankans, police said.

“Altogether, we have information of 207 dead from all hospitals. According to the information as of now we have 450 injured people admitted to hospitals,” police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera told reporters.

Government officials said that 32 foreigners were killed and 30 injured in the explosions that tore through congregations and gatherings in hotels in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa.

They included five British people, two of whom had dual U.S. citizenship, and three Indians, according to officials in those countries.

Also among the fatalities were three people from Denmark, two from Turkey, and one from Portugal, Sri Lankan officials said. There were also Chinese and Dutch among the dead, according to media reports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said U.S. nationals were among those killed, but did not give details.

Police officials and catholic priests stand inside the church after a bomb blast in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

Police officials and catholic priests stand inside the church after a bomb blast in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

PRIOR INFORMATION

There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attacks in a country which was at war for decades with Tamil separatists until 2009, a time when bomb blasts in the capital were common.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe acknowledged that the government had some “prior information of the attack”, though ministers were not told.

He said there wasn’t an adequate response and there needed to be an inquiry into how the information was used.

He also said the government needs to look at the international links of a local militant group.

Agence France Presse reported that it had seen documents showing that Sri Lanka’s police chief Pujuth Jayasundara issued an intelligence alert to top officers 10 days ago, warning that suicide bombers planned to hit “prominent churches”. He cited a foreign intelligence service as reporting that a little-known Islamist group was involved.

A Sri Lanka police spokesman said he was not aware of the intelligence report.

BLOOD ON CHURCH PEWS

Dozens were killed in one of the blasts at St. Sebastian’s Gothic-style Catholic church in Katuwapitiya, north of Colombo. Gunasekera said the police suspected a suicide attack there. Pictures from the site showed bodies on the ground, blood on the church pews and a destroyed roof.

Local media reported 25 people were also killed in an attack on an evangelical church in Batticaloa in Eastern Province.

The hotels hit in Colombo were the Shangri-La, the Kingsbury, the Cinnamon Grand and the Tropical Inn near the national zoo. There was no word on casualties in the hotels, but a witness told local TV he saw some body parts, including a severed head, lying on the ground beside the Tropical Inn.

The first six explosions were all reported within a short period in the morning just as church services were starting.

One of the explosions was at St. Anthony’s Shrine, a Catholic church in Kochcikade, Colombo, a tourist landmark.

The explosion at the Tropical Inn happened later and there was an eighth explosion at the house that was the subject of the police raid in Colombo.

“I strongly condemn the cowardly attacks on our people today. I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong,” said Sri Lanka’s prime minister in a Tweet.

“Please avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation. The government is taking immediate steps to contain this situation.”

President Maithripala Sirisena said he had ordered the police special task force and military to investigate who was behind the attacks and their agenda.

The military was deployed, a military spokesman said, and security stepped up at Colombo’s international airport. Schools, universities and the Colombo Stock Exchange will be closed on Monday as the island state tries to recover from the attacks.

ATTACKS ON CHRISTIANS

The Christian community had already felt under pressure in Sri Lanka in recent years.

Last year, there were 86 verified incidents of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians, according to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), which represents more than 200 churches and other Christian organizations.

This year, the NCEASL recorded 26 such incidents, including one in which Buddhist monks allegedly attempted to disrupt a Sunday worship service, with the last one reported on March 25.

The heads of major governments condemned the attacks.

U.S. President Donald Trump said America offered “heartfelt condolences” to the Sri Lankan people and stood ready to help, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said there was “no place for such barbarism in our region”, and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said the bombings were “an assault on all of humanity”.

Pope Francis, addressing people in St. Peter’s Square, said: “I wish to express my affectionate closeness to the Christian community, hit while it was gathered in prayer, and to all the victims of such cruel violence.”

Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Day after his death on the cross.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, where a gunman shot 50 people dead in two mosques last month, said in a statement: “Collectively we must find the will and the answers to end such violence.”

(Writing by John Chambers and Martin Howell; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, William Maclean)

‘No regrets’: Saudi sisters hope for bright future after hiding in Hong Kong

Sisters from Saudi Arabia, who go by aliases Reem and Rawan, are pictured in Hong Kong, China March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Yuyang Wang

By Anne Marie Roantree and James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Two Saudi Arabian sisters are hoping for a “bright, beautiful future” after being granted asylum, fleeing what they describe as an abusive family and a repressive society.

The sisters fled from their family last September while on holiday in Sri Lanka and have been stranded in Hong Kong since an aborted attempt to get to Australia, where they hoped to secure asylum.

For reasons of safety, the sisters, aged 18 and 20, who say they were beaten by their father and brothers, asked that their names and faces not be revealed, nor the country to which they have now gone.

“Oh my God, I was so happy,” the curly haired younger sister told Reuters recently, describing how she felt when told asylum had been secured.

“I screamed ‘It’s real, it’s happening’ … It was just relief and unforgettable.”

The sisters spoke to Reuters in a room on the 22nd floor of a Hong Kong hotel shortly before they left the city. Hong Kong-based rights lawyer, Michael Vidler, who has been helping them, attended.

They said they had lived in fear for six months, shuttling between 15 safe houses, staying with a nun, families and at a shelter for abused women.

They feared being intercepted by Saudi officials or relatives and forced to return home, where they believe they could be punished for renouncing Islam, which is punishable by death under the Saudi system of Islamic law.

The Saudi consulate in Hong Kong has not responded to requests for comment.

In a statement late on Monday, Vidler confirmed the sisters had successfully traveled to a third country on “humanitarian visas”.

“To ensure their future security we will not be disclosing the third country where the sisters are now living, nor will we be providing any further details,” he wrote on the Facebook page of his law firm. “The sisters will not be giving any further media interviews.”

The sisters said they were treated harshly, at times beaten, by their brothers and father.

“They were like my jailer, like my prison officer. I was like a prisoner,” the younger sister previously told Reuters.

‘NO REGRET’

They were also critical of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system that requires women to have a male relative’s permission to work, travel, marry, and even get some medical treatment.

“Women are just like slaves,” said the older sister, adding that her dream was to become a writer one day.

“I want to settle down and to feel safe, and (to know) that I have rights and I matter in that country. Just to live normal, and discover myself … because now I own my life.”

This is not the first case in Asia this year of young Saudi women fleeing what they said was repression.

In January, an 18-year-old Saudi woman was granted asylum in Canada after fleeing her family and barricading herself in a Bangkok hotel to resist being sent home.

Her case drew global attention to Saudi Arabia’s strict social rules, which rights groups say can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.

The Saudi mission in Bangkok declined to comment on that case saying it was a family affair.

The kingdom has given women more rights in recent years. Women have been allowed to enter sports stadiums, vote in local elections, and take a greater role in the workforce as Saudi Arabia tries to diversify its oil-dependent economy.

A ban on driving was lifted last year but many women have taken to social media to push for more freedom. Campaigners say the main sticking point remains the guardianship policy.

‘FIND YOUR LIGHT’

Riyadh has also faced scrutiny from Western allies over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.

The sisters watched the news of Khashoggi’s death unfold while in hiding in Hong Kong.

“I said to my sister, ‘I’m glad we left. This is the country we left’, there is no regret at all,” said the older sister, who counts George Orwell’s “1984” as one of her favorite books and likened its dystopian society to her homeland.

“It’s a science fiction book but it’s real in Saudi,” she said.

The pair hatched their escape plan over several years, secretly hoarding about $5,000, partly by scrimping on items they were given money to buy, and had timed it to coincide with the younger sister’s 18th birthday.

They said they had been wracked with uncertainty as a deadline for them to leave Chinese-ruled Hong Kong passed last month. Amnesty International had urged Hong Kong authorities not to return the sisters to Saudi Arabia.

The younger sister, who counts Radiohead and Queen among her favorite bands, said she hoped to inspire young people to stand against social injustice.

“Don’t just stick to the wall and cry. Because if you would cry it would be worse … Fight in your own way and you will find your own light.”

Dressed in a red T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, she said she had no regrets.

“There’s a bright, beautiful future awaiting me.”

(Reporting by James Pomfret and Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Robert Birsel and Clarence Fernandez)