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)

U.S. concerned over Hezbollah’s growing role in Lebanon

FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Hezbollah supporters chant slogans during last day of Ashura, in Beirut, Lebanon September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hezbollah’s growing role in the Lebanese government worries the United States, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon said during a meeting with Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Tuesday, according to the U.S. embassy.

The armed Shi’ite group, which is backed by Iran and listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, controls three of the 30 ministries in Hariri’s new cabinet, the largest number it has ever held. They include the Health Ministry, which has the fourth-largest budget in the state.

U.S. Ambassador Elizabeth Richard, speaking after the meeting, said she had been “very frank … about U.S. concern over the growing role in the cabinet of an organization that continues to maintain a militia that is not under the control of the government”, according to an embassy statement.

Richard, who did not name Hezbollah, said the group “continues to make its own national security decisions; decisions that endanger the rest of the country”.

It also “continues to violate the government’s disassociation policy by participating in armed conflict in at least three other countries”, she said. Lebanon’s official policy of disassociation is intended to keep it out of the region’s conflicts.

Hezbollah’s regional clout has expanded as it sends fighters to Mideast conflicts, including the war in neighboring Syria, where it has fought in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

Together with groups and individuals that see its arsenal as an asset to Lebanon, Hezbollah won more than 70 of the 128 seats in parliament in an election last year. Hariri, who is backed by the West, lost more than a third of his MPs.

A new unity cabinet, which took nearly nine months to put together, largely reflects the election result.

The United States has supplied the Lebanese military with more than $2.3 billion in assistance since 2005, aiming to support it as “the sole, legitimate defender” of the country. The United States is the largest provider of development, humanitarian and security assistance to Lebanon, Richard said.

“In just this last year alone, the United States provided more than $825 million in U.S. assistance and that’s an increase over the previous year.”

(Writing by Tom Perry, editing by Larry King)