The bodies of 15 people, including six children, were found after an apparent gun battle and explosion at a suspected Islamist militant hideout on the east coast of Sri Lanka, according to news reports citing security officials. The fatalities come six days after suicide bombers killed more than 250 and wounded over 500 people at Easter Sunday bomb blasts detonated at three churches and four luxury hotels.
Friday’s shootout between troops and suspected Islamist militants took place at the Muslim majority town of Ampara Sainthamaruthu, south of Batticaloa, a site of last Sunday’s blasts. A police spokesman said that three suspected suicide bombers were among the 15 dead after the shootout, Reuters reported.
It was unclear how many of the fatalities were militants and how many their family members and civilians caught in the crossfire.
The area is not far from the home town of radical preacher Zahran Hashim, the suspected ringleader of the attacks, who is said to have died in the bombing of Colombo’s Shangri-La hotel last Sunday.
Military spokesman Sumith Atapattu said in a statement that as troops headed towards the safe house three explosions were triggered and gunfire began. “Troops retaliated and raided the safe house where a large cache of explosives had been stored,” he said in a statement released to the press.
He said the militants were suspected members of the domestic Islamist group National Towheed Jamaat (NTJ), which has been blamed for last Sunday’s attacks. Bomb-making materials, 150 sticks of gelifnite explosives and thousands of metal balls were found in a search of a separate house in the same area, the military said according to news reports.
The government has said nine homegrown suicide bombers carried out the Easter Sunday attacks, eight of whom had been identified. One was a woman, reports said.
Two of the suicide bombers are reputedly the sons of local spice trader Mohammad Yusuf Ibrahim, one of Sri Lanka’s richest men. Ibrahim was detained and questioned after the attacks. One of his sons was reportedly the second bomber at the Shangri-La hotel alongside Hashim. The other son reportedly targeted the restaurant at the high-end Cinnamon Grand hotel, a short distance away, the BBC reported.
Police said on Friday they were trying to track down 130 people identified by intelligence agencies of having links with Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings. Authorities have reportedly detained at least 80 people, including foreigners from Syria and Egypt, in their investigations so far, according to local media reports. Authorities have undertaken raids across the country since the attacks, the reports said.
Islamic State has taken credit for the attacks and released a video on Tuesday showing eight men, all but one with their faces covered, standing under a black Islamic State flag and declaring their loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. If true, it would mark one of the terror groups largest ever attacks outside of the Middle East.
Muslims in Sri Lanka were urged to pray at home on Friday after intelligence agencies warned of possible car bomb attacks, amid fears of retaliatory violence.
Fears of retaliatory sectarian violence have already caused Muslim communities to flee their homes amid bomb scares, lockdowns and security sweeps, Reuters reported. The US Embassy in Sri Lanka urged its citizens in a statement to avoid places of worship over the weekend after authorities reported there could be more attacks targeting religious centers.
Nearly 10,000 soldiers were deployed across the country to carry out searches and provide security for religious centers, the military said. Authorities have so far focused their investigations on international links to two domestic groups they believe carried out the attacks, NTJ and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim, Reuters reported.
Officials have acknowledged a major lapse in not widely sharing intelligence warnings from India of possible attacks.
President Maithripala Sirisena said on Friday that top defense and police chiefs had not shared information with him about the impending attacks.
He blamed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government for weakening the intelligence system by focusing on the prosecution of military officers over alleged war crimes during a decades-long civil war with ethnic Tamil separatists that ended in 2009.
Wickremesinghe has strongly contested that accusation.
“If we had any inkling, and we had not taken action, I would have handed in my resignation immediately,” he said in media reports, adding: “But what do you do when you are out of the loop?”
Sirisena fired Wickremesinghe in October over political differences, only to reinstate him weeks later following high court rulings in the prime minister’s favor. Opposing factions aligned to Wickremesinghe and Sirisena have often refused to communicate with each other and blame any setbacks on their opponents, government sources quoted by Reuters said.
The Easter Sunday bombings shattered the relative calm that had existed in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka since the civil war against mostly Hindu ethnic Tamil separatists ended. 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 victims were Sri Lankans, although authorities said at least 40 foreigners were also killed, many of them tourists dining at high-end hotels when the bombers unleashed their attacks. They included British, US, Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals, wire agencies reported.
–this dispatch draws on news agency reports