Sri Lanka top security officials told to quit, toll 359

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena

Colombo (IANS): Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has asked the Defence Secretary and the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to quit over mishandling of intelligence reports ahead of Easter Sunday suicide bombings as the death toll surged to 359, officials said on Wednesday.

Friendly governments had shared warnings with Sri Lankan security services, including one memo addressed to IGP Pujith Jayasundara, ahead of the multiple attacks in three Sri Lankan cities but no steps were taken to prevent them.

Officials said a livid Sirisena conveyed his decision to Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and later to the police chief.

In an address to the nation on Tuesday, the President vowed to change the heads of defence forces within 24 hours following their failure to take adequate steps to prevent the horrific suicide attacks.

Admitting lapses, the President said he would restructure the police and security forces.

Three luxury hotels in Colombo and a church each in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa besides two other locations killed 359 people and wounded hundreds on Easter Sunday in the bloodiest day in Sri Lanka since the end of the civil war a decade ago.

Police spokesperson Ruwan Gunasekara gave the new death doll and said 18 more suspects were taken into custody early on Wednesday as security operations continued. Fifty-eight suspects have been arrested since the carnage.

At least 40 foreign nationals, including 10 Indians, were among those killed in the bombings. The UN on Tuesday said till now 45 children had been identified among the dead.

The US Embassy in Sri Lanka said the Federal Bureau of Investigation was on the ground in the island nation to assist with the probe in the bombings claimed by the Islamic State.

But the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, contradicting Sri Lankan officials, told CNN that Washington had no prior knowledge of the attacks and had not issued any warning. However, he warned that there were “ongoing terrosist plots” in the country.

“We had no prior knowledge of these attacks,” the Ambassador said.

The Sri Lankan President’s advisor told CNN that one of the suicide bombers who detonated his explosives at the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo on Sunday was the “ringleader”.

Inshan Seelavan was the “mastermind” of the attacks, said Shiral Lakthilaka. The Sri Lankan government has blamed a local Muslim outfit, National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), for the deadly bombings.

Sri Lankan investigators on Tuesday identified NTJ leader Zahran Hashimi as a key figure in the attacks but his whereabouts were not known.

Reyyaz Salley, Chairman of the Shaikh Usman Waliyullah mosque, said that he had repeatedly attempted to warn the government about radical preachers in Sri Lanka including Hashim.

“If the authorities had taken our advice this could have been prevented,” he said.

A high-level intelligence official in Sri Lanka told CNN that NTJ was planning a second wave of attacks across the country.

The police spokesperson said that nine suicide bombers took part in the carnage and eight have been identified. The ninth bomber was confirmed as the wife of one of the suicide bombers.

Sri Lanka’s State Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said that the majority of the suicide bombers were well-educated and came from “maybe middle or upper middle-class”. One of them is believed to have studied in the UK.

Security sources in the UK named the bomber who studied there as Abdul Lathief Jameel Mohamed and said that he studied in the South East of England in 2006-07.

He later did a course in Australia, according to Wijewardene.

Early on Wednesday, four walkie-talkies and a motorcycle were recovered by the police from a house in Warakapola.

The police also carried out a controlled explosion in the capital after a suspicious motorcycle was found parked on the main road in Wellawatte. However, no explosives were found and the explosion caused no injuries.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said on Monday the police had prior information on possible terror attacks but adequate measures were not taken.

He said the information had not been shared with him or the Ministers while the President said he had not been informed either.