Sri Lanka has vowed to “root out” extremism within its communities as Isis claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday attacks that killed more than 320 people and left over 500 injured.
In a statement released on Tuesday by its Amaq propaganda agency, Isis said the attack was carried out by “fighters of the Islamic State”, and planned to target “nationals of the countries of the [anti-Isis, US-led] coalition” as well as “Christians in Sri Lanka”.
The coordinated attacks carried out by at least seven suicide bombers targeted international hotels and prominent Catholic churches in the capital Colombo, the western coastal town of Negombo and the former war-torn city of Batticalo in the east.
The group released images of eight men in black carrying knives, their faces covered, posing in front of an Isis flag, as well as a video in which they pledged allegiance to the Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
A second, longer Isis statement released later referred to Easter as an “infidel holiday”, and to the carnage on Sunday as a “blessed invasion”. Sri Lankan authorities are investigating whether the cell which carried out the attack, previously identified as a local outfit named National Thowheed Jamath, was aided by returning fighters from Iraq and Syria.
Not long before the group’s claim to the attacks, Sri Lankan junior defence minister Ruwan Wijewardene issued a statement saying intelligence showed Sunday’s bombings were in retaliation for last month’s Christchurch shootings.
In New Zealand, a lone gunman opened fire on two mosques, killing 50 people and leaving dozens injured.
“Preliminary investigations have revealed that what happened in Sri Lanka was in retaliation for the attack against Muslims in Christchurch,” Mr Wijewardene told the Sri Lankan parliament, without providing evidence of his source.
In an interview with The Independent as news of Isis’s claim emerged, the Sri Lankan minister of Muslim affairs Mohammed Hashim Abdul Haleem said that the possibility of the group’s involvement had been discussed at cabinet level in the past two days.
He said the prime minister warned a parliamentary group that met on Monday evening that “this is another war that is starting”, referring to the island’s three decade war with the Tamil Tigers. The ethnic war that ended in 2009 claimed around 100,000 lives, with over 160 suicide attacks carried out by Tamil militants.
Mr Haleem said: “If this Isis is camouflaging among our community, we have to come together as Muslims and root them out.
“It is a war against fanaticism, which must be waged by the government and by the people of Sri Lanka.”
Sri Lanka would also “look to international partners”, he said, adding that security advisers from the US and Interpol were already working with the government in Colombo. “So many countries have come forward to offer their support,” he added.
It was “shocking”, Mr Haleem said, that Sri Lanka appeared to have become a new front in the fight against Isis, “but the world is fighting this war with us”.
Two days after the bombings, the Sri Lankan government announced a day of mourning on Tuesday, and requested a three minute island-wide silence at 08:30 local time [03:00 GMT] in respect for those killed. As white flags fluttered at offices and residences in Colombo, the capital came to a standstill and the streets were deserted long before the government imposed a 9pm curfew, the third in three nights.
President Maithripala Sirisena has declared a “state of emergency” that gives police powers to detain suspects without a warrant. The police spokesman said on Tuesday that 40 people have been arrested so far in connection to the attacks.
And as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told reporters there could be more bombs and militants “out there”, all police stations in the capital were placed on high alert regarding reports of a van and a lorry carrying explosives.
A senior police source told The Independent that the threat was “far from over”. Eyewitnesses said that police were investigating a suspicious vehicle near the Kingsbury Hotel, which was one of the locations where a suicide bomber blew himself upon Sunday.
Minutes later, civilians at the capital’s World Trade Centre, the government-run Bank of Ceylon and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, were evacuated from their premises.
As bodies of the victims were being buried around the island on Tuesday, officials and priests of the attacked churches said the death toll following the attacks could end up being much higher than the current official figures.
“The exact number of the dead is hard to determine at the moment because the churches were crowded and many of the bodies have been blasted into pieces,” said a government official.
Father B A Shiran of St Nicholas’s church in Negombo told The Independent that while the official death toll for the attack at St Sebastian’s church in the town was 110, he believed the number of worshippers who died there would emerge to be more than 200.
A health official at the Colombo National hospital, where most of the injured were rushed following Sunday’s attacks in the capital, confirmed that 267 patients were admitted in the hours following the blasts and 53 had died at hospital so far.
“There were many severe burn and head injuries. More than 15 brain surgeries were carried out yesterday alone and we expect many more casualties,” said the official, who did not want to be named.
With the Muslims’ Friday congregational prayers approaching, the Muslim affairs minister told The Independent that he fears there will be a major backlash against the community.
“We have requested the armed forces to provide security around the mosques during the Friday prayers,” said the minister, who called the attacks “shocking and shameful to face as a community”.
Mr Haleem also said that the Security Council refused to provide security to representatives of the Muslim community who were keen on participating in the funeral services of the victims.
“The defence advised us not to visit these places at this hour as emotions are high,” said the minister.
The minister said that Sunday’s attacks and emerging evidence against “certain minority elements” in the Muslim community shows there is much work to be done to “weed out terrorism”.
“Terrorism has no religion,” said the minister, asking the Muslim community to come forward to help rebuild.
“Each and every one of us should lend our monetary and other resources to help rebuild the churches that have been destroyed,” he said. “I urge the Muslim community to stand together with our Christian brothers at this time of need and help out in every way possible.”
Amid criticism of President Maithripala Sirisena’s government over its failure to act on intelligence shared weeks before the multiple blasts, Mr Haleem said it was “time to end the blame game” and look ahead at ways to rebuild the nation.
Addressing the nation on national television on Tuesday night, President Sirisena said he would be sacking the heads of the country’s defence forces within a day for their neglect.
“I will completely restructure the police and security forces in the coming weeks. I expect to change the heads of defence establishments within next 24 hours,” said the president.
He said the security officials who got the intelligence report from a foreign nation failed to share it with him, adding he would take “stern action” against the officials.