Sri Lanka’s defence minister: Easter bombings ‘in retaliation’ for N.Z. mosque shootings

Sri Lanka’s defence minister: Easter bombings ‘in retaliation’ for N.Z. mosque shootings
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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka on Tuesday described the devastating string of bombings on Easter that killed 321 people as a response to the attack on two mosques in New Zealand last month.

Three hotels and three churches were attacked by suicide bombers on Sunday belonging to the radical Islamist group National Thowheed Jamaath in an operation that authorities appear to have had advance warning about.

“Investigations have revealed that the attacks were carried out by Islamic extremists in retaliation to the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand,” State Minister of Defense Ruwan Wijewardene told parliament.

On March 15, a white supremacist killed 50 Muslims in two mosques.

He did not offer any evidence for the connection and also acknowledged there were security lapses that allowed the attacks to occur, which he ascribed to rivalries between the president and the prime minister.

“Don’t take this as a joke: As long as the division between the president and the prime minister exists, you can’t solve this problem – my security division knew about the advance notice (of the attack), I did not.”

The office of New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said Tuesday she is aware of comments linking Sri Lanka’s Easter bombings to the mosque attacks in Christchurch, although it hasn’t “seen any intelligence upon which such an assessment might be based.”

The Christchurch shootings killed 50 people in March.

The Islamic State on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the attack, describing the suicide bombers as its fighters.

“Those who carried out the attack that targeted citizens belonging to the alliance countries and Christians in Sri Lanka are fighters with the Islamic State,” according to a statement on IS news agency Amaq carried by SITE, which tracks jihadist groups.

‘Alliance countries’ refers to those involved in the U.S.-led military coalition against the Islamic State in Syria, which includes 79 nations from Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, although Sri Lanka is not among them.

Leaked copies of a report by intelligence officials earlier this month warned of plans by the National Thowheed Jamaath group to attack churches. Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne has called for the resignation of the top police official for not taking any action.

By Tuesday morning, 40 people had been arrested, including three being held by the Terrorism Investigation Department, said police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara.

Police have been given emergency powers to detain and question suspects without a court order. Such powers were used extensively during Sri Lanka’s civil war but have not been implemented since 2011.

It was also announced that schools and universities would be closed at least until Monday, and Masses at churches canceled until further notice. The country has been on edge with three bomb scares, including one at the U.S. Embassy, taking place in the last 24 hours.

Police have been instructed to look out for five bikes, a cab and a van suspected of carrying more explosives.

Funerals, meanwhile, were being held for the victims and a three-minute silence was observed countrywide at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

“Endless crying” is how Malini Vijaysingha, 60, described the hours since the attack as she paid her respects outside one of the bombed churches.

The United States pledged support for the investigation, dispatching FBI agents to help, including by offering laboratory experience to test bomb evidence. At least four U.S. citizens are among the dead, and “several” Americans were seriously injured, the State Department said Monday. Sri Lankan Tourism Minister John Amaratunga said 38 foreigners were killed and 28 wounded.

Investigators will be looking into how the local Islamist group, whose name roughly translates to National Monotheism Organization, was able to carry out such a planned, coordinated and deadly attack and whether they had overseas help, as officials suggested Monday. President Maithripala Sirisena asked for international assistance in determining any foreign links.

As news of the supposed advance notice about the attacks spread, mourners responded with rising anger mixed with grief at funerals and other gatherings in Christian communities.

“This is the government’s fault. They are incompetent. They knew and they did nothing,” said one man who was weeping Monday outside a funeral in Negombo. He did not give his name, but turned away and joined others entering a house where the coffin of a woman lay on a cloth-covered table, surrounded by silent mourners.

Police officers inspect a vehicle at a gate to the Parliament of Sri Lanka in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Tuesday, April 23, 2019. Tharaka Basnayaka/Bloomberg

Two officials provided The Washington Post with the three-page intelligence report that the health minister alluded to, in which a senior police official warned of potential suicide attacks by the same Islamist extremist group.

The authenticity of those documents were verified by Sri Lanka’s state minister for defense, Ruwan Wijewardene. The report also identified several members by name, including the group’s alleged leader.

Mujibur Rahman, a member of Sri Lanka’s Parliament who was briefed on the report, said it was based on information from Indian intelligence agencies.

Authorities said the main attacks – on churches and hotels – were carried out by seven suicide bombers.

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