• Sunday, Aug 25, 2019
  • Last Update : 12:50 pm

More detentions as death toll in Sri Lanka attacks rises to 359

  • Published at 02:39 am April 25th, 2019
Sri Lankan priests and relatives bless the coffins of bomb blast victims after a funeral service at St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo on April 23, 2019, two days after a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka began a day of national mourning on April 23 with three minutes of silence to honour nearly 300 people killed in suicide bomb blasts that have been blamed on a local Islamist group. ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP
Sri Lankan priests and relatives bless the coffins of bomb blast victims after a funeral service at St Sebastian's Church in Negombo on April 23, 2019 AFP

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said the death toll had risen to 359 from 321 overnight, with about 500 people wounded

Sri Lankan police said on Wednesday they had detained 18 more people for questioning over the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels, claimed by the Islamic State group, as the death toll climbed again to 359.

The extremist Islamic State group made its claim after Sri Lankan officials said the suicide bombings in Sri Lanka were carried out in retaliation for attacks on two mosques in New Zealand that killed 50 people in March.

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said the death toll had risen to 359 from 321 overnight, with about 500 people wounded.

The Islamic State said through its AMAQ news agency the assaults in Sri Lanka were carried out by seven attackers and released a photo and video of the men it said were responsible. If true, it would be one of the worst attacks carried out by the group outside Iraq and Syria.

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has asked the police chief and defence secretary to quit following the attacks, two sources close to the president said. The sources declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter amid accusations within the government of intelligence failures ahead of the attacks.

Junior minister for defence Ruwan Wijewardene told parliament on Tuesday two Sri Lankan Islamist groups - the National Thawheed Jama'ut and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim - were responsible for the blasts, which went off during Easter services and as hotels served breakfast.

One of the attackers studied in the UK and Australia before carrying out Sunday’s bombings, which may have been funded and inspired by Islamic State, Wijewardene said at a media briefing on Wednesday afternoon.

One of the nine bombers that detonated explosives in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday was a woman, he also told reporters.

Police continued searching homes across the Indian Ocean island nation overnight, leading to the detention of 18 more people. That brings the number of people taken in for questioning to close to 60, including one Syrian.

The overnight raids included areas near the Gothic-style St Sebastian church in Negombo, north of the capital, where scores were killed on Sunday, a police spokesman said. An unspecified number of people were detained in western Sri Lanka, the scene of Muslim riots in 2014.

"Search operations are going on everywhere, there is tight checking of Muslim areas," a security source said.

The Easter Sunday bombings shattered the relative calm that has existed in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka since a civil war against mostly Hindu, ethnic Tamil separatists ended 10 years ago, and raised fears of a return to sectarian violence.

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.

Three sources told Reuters that Sri Lankan intelligence officials had been warned by India hours before the blasts that attacks by Islamists were imminent. It was not clear what action, if any, was taken.

Most of those killed and wounded were Sri Lankans, although government officials said 38 foreigners were also killed. That included Bangladeshi, British, US, Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals.

The UN Children's Fund said 45 children were among the dead.

Junior defence minister Wijewardene said investigators believed revenge for the March 15 mosque attacks in the New Zealand city of Christchurch was the motive but did not elaborate. The attacks during Friday prayers in Christchurch were carried out by a lone gunman.

The Sri Lankan government has imposed emergency law and an overnight curfew. It said it has also blocked online messaging services to stop the spread of inflammatory rumours that it feared could incite communal clashes.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation is assisting with investigations.