Sri Lanka president says 70 Islamic State suspects held after Easter bombings

Sri Lankan security personnel check vehicles and bags in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Apr. 25, 2019. EPA-EFE/M.A. PUSHPA KUMARA

COLOMBO.- A series of explosions went off in a shootout in a Sri Lankan town on Friday during a police investigation into the Easter Sunday bombings.

The incident, between an unknown armed group and security forces, took place in the town of Sammanthurai in the east of the country.

«The troops are still involved but we can not give more details yet, there have been three explosions but we are not sure if they were caused by suicides or for other reasons,» an anonymous military source told Efe.

The raid was launched after receiving a report of a safe house for people linked to the suicide attacks, according to the source.

It came in the wake of the Sunday attacks on hotels and churches that killed at least 253 people and injured around 500 others.

The Sri Lankan president on Friday said that there were as many as 140 Islamic State suspects in the country and 70 of them had been held.

Maithripala Sirisena vowed that the presence of the global terror network will be routed out from the island nation as the remaining Islamic States suspects would be detained «very soon”.

“I will stamp out IS from Sri Lanka. Our police and security forces are capable of achieving this,»he said, adding that the country would also take assistance from other nations to fight the terror group.

Sirisena said the person who led the attacks on Sunday has been identified as Mohamed Zahran who died in a blast in Hotel Shangri-La in Colombo.

He said he belonged to local Islamist outfit National Thowheed Jamath which was earlier blamed for the attacks.

Sirisena, who is also the defense minister, blamed security officials and promised action against those officials who «neglected» their duties.

He said there would be “a total reorganization (of) the security establishment in the days to come» following a failure to act on warnings received ahead of the attacks.

The president warned of a close relationship between extremism and drug-trafficking, which the government has tried to tackle through several controversial measures in recent months.

Sirisena’s government has drawn criticism for its failure to prevent the attacks despite intelligence warnings indicating the threat of bombings.

The country has been in a state of emergency after suicide bombers hit three luxury hotels in Colombo and three churches around the country during Easter services in a series of coordinated attacks.

A few hours later, a seventh blast rocked a small hotel near the Dehiwala Zoo, about 12 km south of the capital, while an eighth explosion took place at a residential compound in Dematagoda in Colombo.

Police have said at least nine suicide bombers loaded with powerful explosives carried out the attacks.

On Thursday, Sri Lanka reduced the death toll in the Easter Sunday bombings to 253 – almost a hundred less than previously feared.

The revised toll came after the authorities said there was an error in calculating how many victims there were.

There have been a number of attacks against religious minorities in the past on the island where Christians make up 7.4 percent of the population, with Buddhists accounting for 70.2 percent.

There are 12.6 percent Hindus and 9.7 percent Muslims, according to the 2011 census.

In 2018, the government declared a state of emergency after violence erupted between Muslims and the majority Sinhalese Buddhists leading to two deaths and dozens of arrests.

However, the recent bombings were the worst attacks since the Sri Lankan civil war between Tamil guerrillas and government ended in 2009.

The 26-year-old conflict claimed the lives of tens of thousands of civilians, according to data from the United Nations.

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