27 Apr 2019

Sri Lanka bombings: PM Ranil Wickremesinghe says he was 'out of the loop'

7:20 pm on 27 April 2019

Sri Lanka's prime minister has told the BBC he was "out of the loop" when it came to intelligence warnings ahead of the deadly Easter Sunday bombings.

Ranil Wickremesinghe is currently visiting New Zealand for the first time.

Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe says he is not accountable for the Easter Sunday security failings. Photo: AFP

Ranil Wickremesinghe said that crucial information about any potential danger in the country was not passed to him. The subsequent attacks, which claimed at least 250 lives, exposed a massive intelligence failure by Sri Lanka.

Today, the bodies of 15 people including six children were found after an explosion at a suspected Islamist militant hideout in east Sri Lanka, police said.

Police said the dead also included three women, believed to be family members of the suspected militants.

Residents said they heard an explosion followed by gunfire over several hours. The clashes took place in Sainthamaruthu, not far from the home town of the suspected ringleader of the Easter Sunday suicide attacks.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the country's police chief and top defence ministry official have both resigned.

But Mr Wickremesinghe argued the fact that he was unaware of the warnings meant he did not need to step down from his position.

"If we had any inkling, and we had not taken action, I would have handed in my resignation immediately," he said, adding: "But what do you do when you are out of the loop?"

President Maithripala Sirisena earlier said that Sri Lankan intelligence services believed around 130 suspects linked to the Islamic State (IS) group were in the country and that police were hunting 70 who were still at large.

Police later discovered what they believed was the attackers' safe house in the eastern city of Sammanthurai. An "Islamic State banner [and] IS uniform similar to the video that was released by alleged suicide bombers" were found inside the building, a police spokesperson told the BBC.

About 150 sticks of dynamite and 100,000 ball bearings were also found during the raid.

There have also been reports of a shootout between security forces and a group of alleged suspects in a separate location.

Sri Lankan authorities have blamed a local Islamist extremist group, National Thowheed Jamath, for the attacks, although IS has also said it was behind them.

Sri Lankan security personnel inspect the debris of a car after it explodes when police tried to defuse a bomb near St. Anthony's Shrine as priests look on in Colombo on April 22, 2019, a day after the series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka.

Photo: Jewel SAMAD / AFP

Attack 'leader' died in bombings

Mr Sirisena also confirmed that the attackers' alleged ringleader, Zahran Hashim, a radical preacher, died at the Shangri-La hotel in the capital, Colombo.

He said Hashim led the attack on the popular tourist hotel, accompanied by a second bomber identified as "Ilham". It was one of six hotels and churches targeted by the group.

Hashim appeared in a video released by IS in which seven men - thought to be some of the bombers - pledged allegiance to the group. Hashim was the only one to show his face.

It is not clear whether Hashim had been in direct contact with IS or if he had simply pledged allegiance to the group.

Latest developments

Sri Lankan officials revised the death toll from the bombings down by about 100 on Thursday, to 253, blaming the difficulty in identifying body parts at bomb scenes. But the move raised questions over how the previous estimate could have been so inaccurate.

The country's Catholic Church has announced the suspension of all church services.

In Negombo, a community of Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan as well as some Christians and Afghan nationals have been ejected from their homes by landlords. Rights activists say the Ahmadi community, as foreign Muslims, could face reprisal attacks.

The Sri Lankan government has said it will search schools, in one of a series of announcements designed to address public anxiety in the aftermath of the attacks.

A state of emergency, declared on Monday local time, has continued, allowing police to detain and interrogate suspects without court orders.

Sri Lanka's finance minister, Mangala Samaraweera said on Friday there were fears the country's lucrative tourism industry could see a fall in arrivals of up to 30 percent this year - resulting in a loss of $1.5bn ($NZ2.33bn).

A priest conducts religious rituals during a mass burial for Easter Sunday bomb blast victims in Negombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, April 24, 2019.

Photo: AP

Who were the attackers?

Nine people are suspected of carrying out the attacks. Two of the bombers are said to have been the sons of spice trader Mohammad Yusuf Ibrahim, one of Sri Lanka's richest men. Mr Ibrahim was detained and questioned after the attacks.

One of his sons was reportedly the bomber at the city's Shangri-La hotel - alongside Hashim, according to President Sirisena. The other son reportedly targeted the restaurant at the high-end Cinnamon Grand hotel, a short distance away.

A woman said to be a wife of one of Mr Ibrahim's sons detonated explosives during a police raid at the family's villa on Sunday. Several people, including children and three police officers, were reportedly killed in that blast.

According to the Sri Lankan government, most of the attackers were "well educated" and had come from "middle- or upper middle-class" families.

Another of the alleged bombers studied in the UK, a senior Whitehall official told the BBC. Abdul Latif Jamil Mohammed studied aerospace engineering at Kingston University in 2006-7 but did not complete a full degree.


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