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Easter Bombings a Response to NZ Attack04/23 06:08

   COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) -- Sri Lanka's state minister of defense said 
Tuesday that the Easter attack on churches, hotels and other sites in the South 
Asian nation was "carried out in retaliation" for the shooting massacre at two 
New Zealand mosques last month, according to a statement.

   The minister, Ruwan Wijewardene, told Parliament the government possessed 
information that the series of bombings in and outside of Colombo that killed 
more than 300 people was carried out "by an Islamic fundamentalist group" in 
response to the Christchurch attacks. He did not provide evidence or explain 
the source of the information.

   Wijewardene blamed "weakness" within Sri Lanka's security apparatus for 
failing to prevent the nine bombings.

   "By now it has been established that the intelligence units were aware of 
this attack and a group of responsible people were informed about the impending 
attack," he said. "However, this information has been circulated among only a 
few officials."

   As Sri Lanka's leaders wrangled with the implications of an apparent 
homegrown militant attack and massive intelligence failure, security was 
heightened Tuesday for a national day of mourning and the military was 
employing powers to make arrests it last used during the devastating civil war 
that ended in 2009.

   The six near-simultaneous attacks on three churches and three luxury hotels 
and three related blasts later Sunday was Sri Lanka's deadliest violence in a 
decade. Wijewardene said the death toll from the attack now stood at 321 
people, with 500 wounded.

   Word from international intelligence agencies that a local group was 
planning attacks apparently didn't reach the prime minister's office until 
after the massacre, exposing the continuing political turmoil in the highest 
levels of the Sri Lankan government.

   On April 11, Priyalal Disanayaka, Sri Lanka's deputy inspector general of 
police, signed a letter addressed to the directors of four Sri Lankan security 
agencies, warning them that a local group was planning a suicide attack in the 
country.

   The intelligence report attached to his letter, which has circulated widely 
on social media, named the group allegedly plotting the attack, National 
Towheed Jamaar, named its leader as Zahran Hashmi, and said it was targeting 
"some important churches" in a suicide terrorist attack that was planned to 
take place "shortly."

   The report named six individuals likely to be involved in the plot, 
including someone it said had been building support for Zahran and was in 
hiding since the group clashed with another religious organization in March 
2018.

   On Monday, Sri Lanka's health minister held up a copy of the intelligence 
report while describing its contents, spurring questions about what Sri Lanka 
police had done to protect the public from an attack.

   It was not immediately clear what steps were taken by any of these security 
directors. Disanayaka did not answer calls or messages seeking comment.

   Among the 40 people arrested on suspicion of links to the bombings were the 
driver of a van allegedly used by the suicide attackers and the owner of a 
house where some of them lived.

   Heightened security was evident at an international airport outside the 
capital where security personnel walked explosive-sniffing dogs and checked car 
trunks and questioned drivers on roads nearby. Police also ordered that anyone 
leaving a parked car unattended on the street must put a note with their phone 
number on the windscreen, and postal workers were not accepting pre-wrapped 
parcels.

   A block on most social media since the attacks has left a vacuum of 
information, fueling confusion and giving little reassurance the danger had 
passed. Even after an overnight curfew was lifted, the streets of central 
Colombo were mostly deserted Tuesday and shops closed as armed soldiers stood 
guard.

   Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the massacre could 
unleash instability and he vowed to "vest all necessary powers with the defense 
forces" to act against those responsible.

   Authorities said they knew where the group trained and had safe houses, but 
did not identify any of the seven suicide bombers, whose bodies were recovered, 
or the other suspects taken into custody. All seven bombers were Sri Lankans, 
but authorities said they strongly suspected foreign links.

   Also unclear was a motive. The history of Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, a 
country of 21 million including large Hindu, Muslim and Christian minorities, 
is rife with ethnic and sectarian conflict.

   In the nation's 26-year civil war, the Tamil Tigers, a powerful rebel army 
known for using suicide bombers, had little history of targeting Christians and 
was crushed by the government in 2009. Anti-Muslim bigotry fed by Buddhist 
nationalists has swept the country recently.

   In March 2018, Buddhist mobs ransacked businesses and set houses on fire in 
Muslim neighborhoods around Kandy, a city in central Sri Lanka that is popular 
with tourists.

   After the mob attacks, Sri Lanka's government also blocked some social media 
sites, hoping to slow the spread of false information or threats that could 
incite more violence.

   Sri Lanka, though, has no history of Islamic militancy. Its small Christian 
community has seen only scattered incidents of harassment.


(KA)

 
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