Sri Lanka shakes up top security posts
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s president shook up the country’s top security establishment after officials failed to act on intelligence reports warning of possible attacks before the Easter bombings that killed over 350 people, his office said Wednesday.
The capital of Colombo, meanwhile, remained rattled by reports that police were continuing to conduct controlled detonations of suspicious items three days after the attacks on churches and luxury hotels, and the U.S. ambassador said that Washington believes “the terrorist plotting is ongoing.”
During a televised speech to the nation Tuesday night, President Maithripala Sirisena said he would change the head of the defense forces within 24 hours, and on Wednesday he asked for the resignations of the defense secretary and national police chief in a dramatic internal shake-up. He did not say who would replace them.
Sirisena said he had been kept in the dark on the intelligence about the planned attacks and vowed to “take stern action” against officials who failed to share it.
Government leaders have acknowledged that some intelligence units were aware of possible attacks weeks before the bombings that struck three churches and three luxury hotels. The death toll rose Wednesday to 359, with 500 people wounded. Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara also said 18 suspects were arrested overnight, raising the total detained to 58.
Sri Lankan authorities have blamed a local extremist group, National Towheed Jamaat, whose leader, alternately named Mohammed Zahran or Zahran Hashmi, became known to Muslim leaders three years ago for his incendiary online speeches. On Wednesday, junior defense minister Ruwan Wijewardene said the attackers had broken away from National Towheed Jamaat and another group, which he identified only as “JMI.”
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the attacks. Authorities remain unsure of the group’s involvement, though authorities are investigating whether foreign militants advised, funded or guided the local bombers.
Wijewardene said many of the suicide bombers were highly educated and came from well-to-do families.
“Their thinking is that Islam can be the only religion in this country,” he told reporters. “They are quite well-educated people,” he said, adding that at least one had a law degree and some may have studied in the U.K. and Australia.
A British security official has confirmed a report that a suicide bomber who is believed to have studied in the U.K. between 2006 and 2007 was Abdul Lathief Jameel Mohamed. The security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the investigation, said British intelligence was not watching Mohamed during his stay in the country. His name was first reported by Sky News.
A team of FBI agents and U.S. military officials were helping in the investigation, said U.S. Ambassador Alaina Teplitz.
People light candles in Peshawar, Pakistan, Wednesday during a vigil for the victims of the bomb explosions in churches and hotels in Sri Lanka. The Easter Sunday suicide bombings at churches and hotels killed over 350 people and injured 500.