Militants linked to Easter suicide bombings opened fire and set off explosives during a raid by Sri Lankan security forces on a house in the country’s east, leaving behind a grisly discovery: 15 bodies, including six children.
- Sunday masses have been indefinitely cancelled and officials have urged Muslims to stay at home for prayers
- During the raid police found bodies, Islamic State uniforms, 150 gelignite sticks and 100,000 metal balls
- Authorities are looking for 140 people believed to have links with the Islamic State group, 70 have been arrested
The gunfight and the carnage that followed came amid widespread fear of more attacks as officials hunted for militants with explosives believed to still be at large after the coordinated bombings of churches and luxury hotels that killed more than 250 nearly a week ago.
The shootout came after police tipped off soldiers about a suspected safe house near the town of Sammanthurai in Ampara, south of Batticaloa — the site of one of the Easter Sunday blasts at luxury hotels and churches.
Authorities said the militants detonated three explosions and opened fire. At least three others were wounded in the attack, said police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara.
The 15 bodies were found in the morning during clearance operations. Mr Gunasekara said some of the dead likely were militants who blew themselves up in suicide bombings.
It has since been confirmed that a girl and woman survived the explosions.
Raids and police curfews have shut down areas of eastern Sri Lanka as Catholic leaders cancelled Sunday masses indefinitely.
Giovanni Maria Vian, a church historian and emeritus editor of the Vatican newspaper, said he believed it was the first time the church had cancelled masses across a country for security reasons.
Officials also urged Muslims to stay home for prayers as fear of more attacks plagued the island nation.
Major General Aruna Jayasekara, the local military commander, said soldiers and police waited until daylight on Saturday to carry out further raids given houses have been built closely together.
“A search found explosives used to produce bombs, IS uniforms, curtains with IS logo, 150 gelignite sticks, 100,000 metal balls and a drone camera from a house in Samanthurai,” a spokesman said.
Police have been conducting raids across the country to find more details about the perpetrators and their supporters.
Nearly 10,000 soldiers were deployed across the Indian Ocean island state to carry out searches and provide security for religious centres, the military said.
Islamic State has claimed responsibility but 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 of Iraq and Syria.
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena said on Friday that police were looking for 140 people believed to have links with the Islamic State group over the Easter Sunday attacks.
“This is an unexpected tragedy. But we have the capability to crush this [radical group] completely. This will be crushed completely. I will create an environment for the people of this country to live freely and peacefully,” Mr Sirisena said.
“At this time more than 70 people have been arrested. The information we have is that about 140 people are involved with IS in Sri Lanka. Operations to find them have already been set in motion.”
Sri Lanka’s top officials have acknowledged that intelligence units were aware of threats by the militant group blamed for the attack — National Thowheeth Jama’ath — weeks ahead of the Easter blasts.
But the President and Prime Minister, who have been embroiled in a political feud since last October, both said they were kept in the dark.
Mr Sirisena told reporters that top defence and police chiefs had not shared information with him about the impending attacks.
He also 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.
“It is not a secret that issues between me and the Government worsened in the last two years. One of the main reasons for that is that I criticise inside and outside the Government for the weakening of the intelligence services and arresting military officers unnecessarily,” he said.
“In this incident the defence secretary and the police chief have completely failed to carry out their responsibilities. They at least should have given me a phone call. They both came on April 14 to send me [New Year] greetings, even at that time they didn’t tell me about this intelligence report.”