Children among 15 dead in battle


Children among 15 dead in battle

‘Atmosphere of fear’ as churches tell worshippers to pray at home

ISLAND UNDER SIEGE: Armed security personnel at the site of the gun battle between troops and Islamist militants. Picture: Reuters
ISLAND UNDER SIEGE: Armed security personnel at the site of the gun battle between troops and Islamist militants. Picture: Reuters

Fifteen people, including three women and six children, were killed this weekend when a bomb was detonated as police raided the home of more suspects linked to Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday attacks.

Police discovered a significant haul of explosives and weapons in the Friday night raid, which ended in a shoot-out and explosion – and underlined the scale of the terror network on the island. Two further suspects linked to the Easter bombings were also said to be on the run after a gun battle with police.

The wounded from the blast included the wife and a daughter of Mohamed Hashmi Mohamed Zahran, the mastermind of the Easter Sunday raid. Photos show the charred remains of one child and the body of another wearing a green T-shirt with the words “good boy” written on the back.

Police curfews have shut down areas of Sri Lanka, and Catholic leaders have cancelled Sunday Masses indefinitely. Officials urged Muslims to stay home for prayers. Fear of more attacks has led to increased security at churches, shrines, temples and mosques across the multiethnic island nation of 21 million people.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, said church officials had seen a leaked security document describing churches of all denominations as major targets. He asked the faithful across Sri Lanka to stay at home.

It was an extraordinary request for a Catholic clergyman to make, as churches often remain a refuge. A church historian said he believed it was the first time the church had cancelled Masses across a country for security reasons.

Friday’s casualties raised further questions about Sri Lankan security services, which have be dogged by claims they missed key warnings about the rising terror threat. Reporters yesterday visited a coconut plantation where intelligence agencies found a cache of explosives and bomb-making materials back in January.

It was on these 80 acres of farmland near Wanathavilluwa in the country’s north-west that Sri Lankan CID officers found more than 220lb of explosives and containers of explosive chemicals.

The January haul by detectives investigating an increasingly militant Islamist extremist group then known only for smashing Buddhist statues should have set alarm bells ringing. Yet while four people were arrested at the time, two were quickly freed and police downplayed the find, making no mention of its link to the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) group.

Four months later, with 253 people dead in last week’s bombings, the Sri Lankan government is reeling from accusations that they could have been prevented.

The government faces criticism that it not only failed to spot the NTJ threat in January, but then did not act on detailed warnings – of targets, times and operatives – given by Indian intelligence chiefs in the weeks before the blasts.


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Officers at the site of the gun battle found 150 sticks of blasting gelatin and 100,000 small metal balls, as well as a van and clothing suspected of being used by those involved in the Easter attacks. Suicide bomb vests are often packed with such balls to increase the shrapnel in the explosion, making them even deadlier.

Another man was detained on a tuk tuk with 2.2lb of C4 explosives near the Wellawatta railway station in Central Colombo, heightening fears of a second wave of attacks.

Government intelligence sources said they are investigating whether NTJ founder Zaharan Hashmi and fellow bombers had used the plantation site in the north-west as a training ground or base.

Residents of the nearest village said the site had been rented out to a group of men for several months before January’s raids.Lorries regularly drove down to the land, which also contains a small chicken farm. The district is renowned for heroin and hashish smuggling across the Palk Strait to India and the coconut plantation is only around 500 yards from a lagoon.

The land belonged to a young Muslim businessman who was arrested in January and is thought to be still in custody. He is said to have told neighbours not to visit the farmland when the new tenants arrived and village boys who used to steal coconuts stopped amid rumours it was had been booby-trapped.

Zahran Hashmi studied in India and used the country as a base to upload fiery sermons attacking other religions. He is thought to have regularly smuggled himself in fishing boats to Sri Lanka.

Indian security agencies warned Sri Lanka about possible bombings after its National Intelligence Agency (NIA) investigated an Isil-sponsored cell that was planning to kill prominent south Indian leaders. During the inquiry, the NIA had stumbled upon Hashmi’s videos asking young people from Tamil Nadu and Kerala, as well as Sri Lanka, to work towards establishing an Islamic Caliphate in the region.

India arrested and charged seven people accused of criminal conspiracy to target Hindu leaders and activists who were critical of Islamist terrorism.

All were found to be in contact with Hashmi and were sharing Isil propaganda on social media.

Communications surveillance by the Indians then discovered chatter about a plot to target churches and Colombo was repeatedly tipped off in the weeks ahead of the attacks. The last warning came only hours before terrorists strolled into hotel breakfast buffets and Easter church services.

Complacency over the threat and a dysfunctional government riven by infighting had meant the intelligence was not shared or acted upon.

While Sri Lanka’s Muslims have been viewed as a “model community” that supported the government in the fight against the Tamil Tiger rebels in the country’s civil war, they have increasingly been preyed on by outside radical preachers, Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert said.

It was only after 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq that radical preachers began coming to Sri Lanka, added Gunaratna.

Sunday Independent


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