COLOMBO, SRI LANKA Sri Lanka’s president on Saturday outlawed two Islamist groups suspected to be behind recent suicide bombings on churches and hotels, while the wife and child of the suspected ringleader were wounded during a military raid in safe house, his family and police said.
The National Towheed Jamaat (NTJ) and Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim were banned under his emergency powers, President Maithripala Sirisena said in a statement, nearly a week after the Easter Sunday attacks that killed more than 250 people.
Authorities could not act earlier to ban the two little-known groups because the law required them to show firm evidence against them, officials said.
Police believe the suspected mastermind of the bombings, Mohamed Hashim Mohamed Zahran, led either the NTJ or a splinter group. Less is known about Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim, whose members are also believed to have played a role in the bombings.
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Soldiers spread out
Nearly 10,000 soldiers have been deployed across the island to carry out searches and boost security since the bombings in three churches and four hotels, most of which were in Colombo.
Security forces have detained 100 people, including foreigners from Syria and Egypt, police said.
A gunbattle erupted on Friday evening during a raid on a safe house in Sainthamaruthu in Ampara district on the island’s east coast, killing at least 15 people, including three people with suicide vests and six children, a military spokesmkan said.
The wounded included the wife and a daughter of Zahran, his family said.
“Yes, the wife and daughter were injured in the attack,” said Mohamed Hashim Mathaniya, sister of Zahran. “I was asked to come to identify them but I am not sure I can go,” she told Reuters from the town of Kattankudy in the east, where Zahran was originally based.
Sirisena and the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have faced strong criticism after it emerged that India had repeatedly given warnings of the possibility of attacks.
Both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have said intelligence was not shared with them, exposing rifts at the top of the government and raising questions about its ability to deal with the security crisis.
The national police chief had refused to accept Sirisena’s request to step down, two sources told Reuters on Saturday, a further embarrassment for the president.
The U.S. State Department said terrorist groups were continuing to plot attacks and cautioned its citizens against traveling to Sri Lanka. The department also ordered the departure of all school-age family members of U.S. government employees.
India and Britain have also warned their nationals to avoid traveling to Sri Lanka.
The security forces’ response has included raids on mosques and homes of people in the town of Negombo, where scores died in the bombing of a church.
Police said on Friday that they were trying to track down 140 people they thought had links to Islamic State.
The president said some of the country’s youth had been involved with the group since 2013 and that there were drug-trafficking links.
Warning of retaliation
Muslims were urged to pray at home on Friday after the State Intelligence Services warned of possible car bomb attacks, amid fears of retaliatory violence. Many have fled their homes amid bomb scares, lockdowns and security sweeps.
The archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, told reporters he had seen an internal security document warning of further attacks on churches and said there would be no Catholic Masses celebrated anywhere on the island this Sunday.
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.
Most of the bombing victims were Sri Lankans. The dead also included 40 foreigners, including British, U.S., Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals.
Source: Voice of America