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Sri Lanka Outlaws Islamist Groups Suspected Behind Easter Attack

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

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easter attack, easter attack group
Security officers patrol outside a luxury hotel, days after a string of suicide bomb attacks across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 27, 2019. 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.

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Security personnel are seen at the site of an overnight gunbattle between troops and suspected Islamist militants, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, in Kalmunai, April 27, 2019. VOA

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.

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People relocated to a school building because of an overnight gunbattle between troops and suspected Islamist militants on the east coast of Sri Lanka are seen in Kalmunai, April 27, 2019. VOA

Government criticized

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.

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Sri Lankan security forces approach the site after a vehicle parked near St. Anthony’s shrine exploded in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 22, 2019. VOA

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.

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Sri Lanka’s 22 million people include minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Until now, Christians had largely managed to avoid the worst of the island’s conflict and communal tensions.

Most of the bombing victims were Sri Lankans. The dead also included 40 foreigners, including British, U.S., Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals. (VOA)

Next Story

Sri Lanka to Reduce Airline Charges to Help Tourism Industry

The government currently predicts $3.7 billion in revenue from tourism this year, down from an initial forecast of $5 billion

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srilanka, tourism
Buddhist monks take part in a prayer ceremony at a buddhist temple for the victims, three days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 24, 2019. VOA

Sri Lanka’s government announced Tuesday it will reduce ground handling charges for airlines and slash aviation fuel prices and embarkation fees to help the country’s vital tourism industry recover after Easter suicide bombings killed more than 250 people.

Tourism Minister John Amaratunga said the decision will lead to an increase in flights to Sri Lanka and a reduction in ticket prices, which will attract more tourists to the Indian Ocean island nation, famed for its pristine beaches.

Seven suicide bombers from a local Muslim group, National Thowheed Jammath, attacked three churches and three luxury hotels on April 21, killing 258 people, including 45 foreigners mainly from China, India, the U.S. and Britain. Tourist arrivals declined 57% in June from a year earlier, dealing a severe blow to the tourism industry, the country’s third-largest foreign currency earner after remittances from overseas workers and textile and garment exports.

sri lanka, tourism
Kandy Temple of the Tooth in Sri Lanka. Wikimedia Commons

The cuts in charges and fees will be in place for six months, said Johanne Jayaratne, head of the government’s tourism development agency. About 2.3 million tourists visited Sri Lanka in 2018, when 29 airlines offered 300 flights per week. After the April 21 attacks, 41 fights per week were canceled, amounting to a loss of 8,000 passenger seats. Several airlines have reinstated their normal schedules since then, but others have not.

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Dimuthu Tennakoon, chairman of the Board of Airline Representatives, said the government decision will encourage airlines to increase their capacity and offer attractive fares.
“That will definitely happen with this reduction because fuel and ground handling contribute a significant percentage of the total cost element of any airline,” he said.

Tourism accounts for 4.9% of Sri Lanka’s GDP. Around half a million Sri Lankans depend directly on tourism and 2 million indirectly. The government currently predicts $3.7 billion in revenue from tourism this year, down from an initial forecast of $5 billion. (VOA)