Sri Lanka, still reeling from the impact of the deadly Easter Sunday explosions, has banned women from wearing face veils. President Maithripala Sirisena implemented the ban under an emergency law. The ban went into effect Monday.
Officials said the move will help security forces with the identification process as the country continues to search for people responsible for the Easter Sunday explosions that targeted churches and hotels.
Reuters reports that the top body of Islamic scholars supports the measure on a short-term basis because of security concerns, but opposes legislation against burqas.
In another development, Sri Lankan local media report that police have identified the woman and the girl who were pulled Saturday from rubble of a shootout between security forces and militants that killed fifteen people, including six children.
Officials say the pair are the wife and daughter of Zahran Hashim, the suspected mastermind behind the deadly Easter Sunday attacks on churches and luxury hotels that killed more than 250 people.
The Daily Mirror newspaper says Hashim’s sister and brother-in-law identified the pair. Sunday Sri Lankan police entered the headquarters of the terrorist group believed to be behind the deadly Easter Sunday attacks.
A day after Colombo declared National Towheed Jamaath (NTJ) a terror group, armed police in the town of Kattankudy in eastern Sri Lanka entered the organization’s main mosque.
On Saturday, President Maithripala Sirisena formally outlawed two Islamist extremist groups suspected of carrying out the Easter attacks. Sirisena used his emergency powers to ban NTJ and another group, Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim (JMI).
Security officials said the NTJ was believed to have been the main group behind the Easter attacks. Officials said they were prohibited by law from banning the little known groups earlier due to the lack of firm evidence against them.
Catholic churches in Sri Lanka were shuttered Sunday in the aftermath of the attack. The faithful, however, were able to watch a televised broadcast of a Mass.
The terrorist group also says it was their men who blew themselves up in the clash with Sri Lankan security forces Saturday where Hashim’s wife and daughter were found. An IS statement said that “after exhausting their ammunition,” the men “detonated on them their explosive belts.”
In another development, Sri Lankan police say they arrested two “most wanted” suspects in connection with the Easter Sunday blasts. Police say the men were arrested in the central region of Nawaapitiya.
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said officers found a cache of 150 gelignite sticks, an Islamic State uniform, steel pellets, a drone, a laptop computer, as well as a van thought to be used during the Easter attacks.
On Friday, thousands of Sri Lankan security personnel were deployed across the country to places of worship, as Muslims answered the call to prayer. Security forces combed the country, tracking down what they say are dozens of local militants with links to the Islamic State terror group.
Sri Lanka’s police chief Pujith Jayasundara resigned Friday because of the security failures around the attacks. A day earlier, Defense Secretary Hemasriri Fernando quit in the wake of the bombings, heeding calls from Sri Lanka’s president for his resignation. Sirisena had called on Fernando and Jayasundara to step down after he promised in a televised address to take stern action against officials who did not share with him the intelligence alerts that came from India days prior to the bombing of churches and luxury hotels.
As the government faces an outpouring of public anger over the failure to heed the warnings, senior officials admit it has been a “major lapse.”
Reports say Indian intelligence agencies sent out several warnings to Sri Lanka, and that Indian security agencies had gathered details about the Islamic militant group suspected of carrying out the attacks. (VOA)
Sri Lanka’s president on Saturday outlawed two Islamist groups suspected to be behind recent suicide bombings on churches and hotels, while the wife and child of the suspected ringleader were wounded during a military raid in safe house, his family and police said.
The National Towheed Jamaat (NTJ) and Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim were banned under his emergency powers, President Maithripala Sirisena said in a statement, nearly a week after the Easter Sunday attacks that killed more than 250 people.
Authorities could not act earlier to ban the two little-known groups because the law required them to show firm evidence against them, officials said.
Police believe the suspected mastermind of the bombings, Mohamed Hashim Mohamed Zahran, led either the NTJ or a splinter group. Less is known about Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim, whose members are also believed to have played a role in the bombings. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Soldiers spread out
Nearly 10,000 soldiers have been deployed across the island to carry out searches and boost security since the bombings in three churches and four hotels, most of which were in Colombo. Security forces have detained 100 people, including foreigners from Syria and Egypt, police said.
A gunbattle erupted on Friday evening during a raid on a safe house in Sainthamaruthu in Ampara district on the island’s east coast, killing at least 15 people, including three people with suicide vests and six children, a military spokesmkan said. The wounded included the wife and a daughter of Zahran, his family said.
“Yes, the wife and daughter were injured in the attack,” said Mohamed Hashim Mathaniya, sister of Zahran. “I was asked to come to identify them but I am not sure I can go,” she told Reuters from the town of Kattankudy in the east, where Zahran was originally based.
Zahran’s driver was detained in a separate raid, according to a police statement. Bomb-making materials, dozens of gelignite sticks and thousands of ball bearings were found in a search of a separate house in the same area, along with Islamic State banners and uniforms, the military said.
Zahran appeared in a video released by Islamic State days after the bombing, the only one showing his face while seven others were covered. In the video the men stand under a black Islamic State flag and declare their loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Authorities have said there could be more attacks against religious centers.
Last Sunday’s bombings shattered the relative calm that the Buddhist-majority country has seen since a 26-year civil war with mostly Hindu ethnic Tamil separatists ended a decade ago. Sirisena and the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have faced strong criticism after it emerged that India had repeatedly given warnings of the possibility of attacks.
Both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have said intelligence was not shared with them, exposing rifts at the top of the government and raising questions about its ability to deal with the security crisis. The national police chief had refused to accept Sirisena’s request to step down, two sources told Reuters on Saturday, a further embarrassment for the president.
The U.S. State Department said terrorist groups were continuing to plot attacks and cautioned its citizens against traveling to Sri Lanka. The department also ordered the departure of all school-age family members of U.S. government employees.
India and Britain have also warned their nationals to avoid traveling to Sri Lanka. The security forces’ response has included raids on mosques and homes of people in the town of Negombo, where scores died in the bombing of a church.
Police said on Friday that they were trying to track down 140 people they thought had links to Islamic State. The president said some of the country’s youth had been involved with the group since 2013 and that there were drug-trafficking links.
Warning of retaliation
Muslims were urged to pray at home on Friday after the State Intelligence Services warned of possible car bomb attacks, amid fears of retaliatory violence. Many have fled their homes amid bomb scares, lockdowns and security sweeps.
The archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, told reporters he had seen an internal security document warning of further attacks on churches and said there would be no Catholic Masses celebrated anywhere on the island this Sunday.