COLOMBO (Reuters) – The corpses of 15 people, including six children, were discovered at the site of a violent nocturnal shootout on Sri Lanka's east coast, a Saturday morning military spokesman said more than 250 people were killed by suicide bombers on the island.
Soldiers guard during a curfew after a nighttime shootout between troops and alleged Islamist fighters on the east coast of Sri Lanka in Kalmunai on April 27, 2019. REUTERS / Dinuka Liyanawatte
The shootout between troops and Friday night broke out of alleged Islamist fighters in Sainthamaruthu in the district of Ampara, south of the city of Batticaloa, on one of the Easter Sundays in three churches and four luxury hotels.
A police spokesman said three alleged suicide bombers were among the 15 dead after the shooting.
The Islamic State took responsibility for last Sunday's attacks, all but one in Colombo. The government said they were run by nine well-trained Sri Lankans, eight of whom were identified.
The authorities have warned that further attacks against religious centers could take place after the bombings, which destroyed the relative calm enjoyed by the Sri Lankan Buddhist majority since a civil war ended against a predominantly Hindu Tamil separatist a decade ago.
The US State Department warned that terrorist groups continue to plan attacks and called on citizens to reconsider the trip to Sri Lanka.
He ordered the deduction of all family members of US school-aged children and also empowered non-emergency workers to leave the country, a statement said.
Britain has also warned its nationals to travel to Sri Lanka, unless absolutely necessary.
CHART: Bombings in Sri Lanka – tmsnrt.rs/2Xy02BA
ISLAMIC STATE FLAGS AND UNIFORMS
The Battle of the East Coast broke out as troops headed for a suspected militant security house, from three military explosions and a military spear were beaten Sumith Atapattu.
"Troops retaliated and stormed the safe house in which a large explosives container had been stored," he said in a statement.
He said the militants were alleged members of the domestic Islamist group National Towheed Jamaat (NTJ), which was held responsible for last Sunday's attacks.
Searching for a separate house in the same area, along with banners and uniforms from the Islamic state, found bomb making materials, dozens of gelignite sticks, and thousands of ball bearings, the military said.
The police said Friday they had tried to locate 140 people whom they believe have ties to the Islamic State. Sri Lankan President said Friday that some Sri Lankan youths have been involved in the Islamic State since 2013 and that there is a link between drug trafficking and the Islamic State.
"There is a strong connection between religious extremism and illegal drug trafficking. Our efforts to eradicate the drug threat from the country have spurred the IS attack, "said President Maithripala Sirisena.
Nearly 10,000 soldiers were stationed throughout the island nation in the Indian Ocean to conduct searches and protect religious centers, the military said.
The authorities have so far focused their investigation into international relations on two domestic groups that they believe have carried out the attacks, NTJ and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim.
They have arrested at least 76 people, including foreigners from Syria and Egypt, in their investigations. Twenty-four were arrested in the last 24 hours, they said.
In a separate raid on a mosque in Colombo, a suspect was arrested and a train of 40 swords and Kris knives seized under the bed of the top cleric, police said.
CHART: A decade of peace is shattered – tmsnrt.rs/2W4wZoU
The Islamic State has found no evidence that it confessed to last Sunday's explosions. If so, this would be one of the group's worst attacks outside of Iraq and Syria.
The extremist group released a video Tuesday, in which eight men, all but one face-down, were under a black flag of the Islamic State, declaring their loyalty to their leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
Muslims were invited to pray at home on Friday after state intelligence agencies warned of possible car bombings with fear of retaliation. Many have fled their homes in the midst of bombing, lockouts and security measures.
Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, told reporters that he had seen an internal security document that warned against further attacks on churches and said that there would be no Catholic masses this Sunday anywhere on the island.
Officials acknowledged a major failure because they had not widely spread the warnings from India about possible attacks.
President Sirisena said Friday that top defense and police chiefs had not shared any information about the impending attacks with him.
He accused Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's government of weakening the news system by focusing on prosecuting military for alleged war crimes during a decades-long civil war with Tamil separatists, which ended in 2009 political differences, only weeks later to reinstate under pressure from the Supreme Court. However, there remains a break between the factions that are aligned with the prime minister and the president, sources say.
The 22 million people in Sri Lanka are Christians, Muslims and Hindus. So far, Christians have largely succeeded in avoiding the island's worst conflicts and tensions.
Most victims of the suicide bombings on Easter Sunday were Sri Lankans, although the authorities said at least 40 foreigners were also killed.
These included British, American, Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals.
Letter from John Chalmers; Cut by Michael Perry