Sri Lanka bombings: 15 die in blast during raid on suspected hideout

Soldiers and armed police guard the area near Dawatagaha Jumma Masjid ahead of Friday prayers on April 26, 2019 in Colombo, Sri LankaImage copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sri Lanka remains on high alert following a wave of bombings last Sunday

The bodies of 15 people including six children were found after an explosion at a suspected Islamist militant hideout in east Sri Lanka, police said.

Police said the dead also included three women, believed to be family members of the suspected militants.

Residents said they heard an explosion followed by gunfire over several hours.

The clashes took place in Sainthamaruthu, not far from the home town of the suspected ringleader of the Easter Sunday suicide attacks.

Around the same time, security forces raided another building in a nearby town where they said they found explosives and a drone.

Sri Lanka has been on high alert since a co-ordinated wave of bombings last Sunday killed at least 250 people and wounded more than 500.

The bombings targeted churches which were packed full for the Easter holiday, as well as hotels popular with tourists.

Sri Lankan authorities blamed a local Islamist extremist group, National Tawheed Jamath, for the attacks, although the Islamic State group (IS) has also claimed it played a role.

Security forces have carried out raids across the country since the attacks, but officials say there are dozen of Islamic State sympathisers still at large in the country.

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Media caption‘This is Sri Lanka’: Fighting back with peace

How did the raid unfold?

Police said the raid on Friday followed a tip-off about a location in a Muslim majority town of Ampara Sainthamaruthu, near Batticaloa.

An armed group at the location set off an explosion and a gun battle ensued, police said.

When troops moved in after dawn on Saturday they found 15 bodies in the burnt-out building, believed to be those of the suspected gunmen and family members, but also some civilians caught in the crossfire, police said.

The area is not far from the home town of radical preacher Zahran Hashim, the suspected ringleader of the attacks, who is said to have died in one of the bombings on Sunday.

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Image caption St Anthony’s shrine in Colombo was one of the churches targeted by bombers

In another raid in the same town, IS flags, 150 sticks of gelignite explosive, thousands of steel pellets and a drone camera were found, a military spokesman said.

According to local media reports, 10 arrests were made across the country on Friday, bringing the total number detained since last Sunday to 80.

President Maithripala Sirisena has told reporters that intelligence services believed about 130 suspects linked to IS were in the country and that police were hunting 70 still at large.

Bomber ‘sat, ate, and waited’

The manager of one of the Colombo hotels targeted by a suicide bomber last Sunday described to the BBC the moments leading up to the attack.

Rohan Karr said the suspected bomber checked into the Cinnamon Grand hotel the evening before, was served a welcome drink and then went up to his room.

“He came down in the morning with the rucksack on his back and he went into the restaurant. He made sure he got a table right in the middle of the restaurant and he was walking around with the rucksack on his back.

“We never thought this was the man who going to kill us.

“He sat, he ate, he waited for people to gather towards the buffet. When he saw a bigger crowd that was the time he decided, this is the time for me to create maximum damage.”

How has the Catholic Church responded?

The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has cancelled all Sunday Masses until further notice. Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Ranjith said he had seen a leaked security document warning of further attacks.

Cardinal Ranjith said that the Church had not been told about intelligence warnings of possible attacks. “We didn’t know anything. It came as a thunderbolt for us,” he told reporters.

Asked about the warnings, he said: “I felt betrayed a little bit. I felt sad. It’s a very serious lapse on the part of the security agencies that they didn’t tell us about it.”

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Image caption Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, fears further attacks are possible

He said the church would halt all services until further notice, and urged parishioners to instead “stay indoors and do their prayers”.

Security was stepped up around mosques for Friday prayers, while some Muslims stayed away, fearing revenge attacks.

What is the political fallout?

Sri Lanka’s police chief and top defence ministry official both resigned over the bombings.

But Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that crucial intelligence warnings had not been passed on to him. He argued that as he had not been aware of the warnings, he did not need to step down from his position.

“If we had any inkling, and we had not taken action, I would have handed in my resignation immediately,” he said, adding: “But what do you do when you are out of the loop?”

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Media captionRanil Wickremesinghe spoke to the BBC

The breakdown in communication has refocused attention on the infighting between the country’s two most powerful men – Mr Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena.

Relations between the two deteriorated to such an extent that last October, Mr Sirisena sacked Mr Wickremesinghe. He was reinstated in December following rulings by Sri Lanka’s highest courts.

Who were the attackers?

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Media captionZahran Hashim’s sister condemns his actions

Nine people are suspected of carrying out the attacks. President Sirisena confirmed that the alleged ringleader, Zahran Hashim, died in the attack at the Shangri-La hotel in the capital, Colombo.

Two of the bombers are said to have been the sons of spice trader Mohammad Yusuf Ibrahim, one of Sri Lanka’s richest men. Mr Ibrahim was detained and questioned after the attacks.

One of his sons was reportedly the second bomber at the Shangri-La hotel alongside Zahran Hashim. The other son reportedly targeted the restaurant at the high-end Cinnamon Grand hotel, a short distance away.

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