| 27.04,19. 03:08 PM |
Sri Lankan police and military discover bodies after shootout with suspected Islamic militants
Photo: Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena (left), and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. (AP: Eranga Jayawardena)
The bodies of 15 people, including six children, have been discovered at the site of a fierce overnight gun battle on the east coast of Sri Lanka six days after suicide bombing attacks killed more than 250 people.
The shootout between soldiers and suspected Islamist militants erupted on Friday evening (local time) in Sainthamaruthu in Ampara, south of Batticaloa — the site of one of the Easter Sunday blasts at luxury hotels and churches.
The police and military had earlier said four gunmen and a civilian had been killed in the shootout. The 15 were found in the morning during clearance operations.
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said some of the dead likely were militants who blew themselves up in suicide bombings.
The assault began after police tipped off soldiers to a suspected safe house, where militants set off three explosions and opened fire, the military said.
Raids and police curfews have shut down areas of eastern Sri Lanka as Catholic leaders cancelled Sunday Masses indefinitely.
Officials also urged Muslims to stay home for prayers in an extraordinary call by the clergy to curtail worship as fear of more attacks plagued the island nation.
Major General Aruna Jayasekara, the local military commander, said soldiers and police waited until daylight Saturday to carry out further raids given houses have been built closely together.
"A search found explosives used to produce bombs, IS uniforms, curtains with IS logo, 150 gelignite sticks, 100,000 metal balls and a drone camera from a house in Samanthurai," a spokesman said.
Police have been conducting raids across the country to find more details about the perpetrators and their supporters.
Nearly 10,000 soldiers were deployed across the Indian Ocean island state to carry out searches and provide security for religious centres, the military said.
Islamic State has claimed responsibility but provided no evidence to back its claim that it was behind the attacks.
If true, it would be one of the worst attacks carried out by the group outside Iraq and Syria.
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena also said on Friday that police are looking for 140 people believed to have links with the Islamic State group over the Easter Sunday attacks.
"This is an unexpected tragedy. But we have the capability to crush this [radical group] completely. This will be crushed completely. I will create an environment for the people of this country to live freely and peacefully," Mr Sirisena said.
"At this time more than 70 people have been arrested. The information we have is that about 140 people are involved with IS in Sri Lanka. Operations to find them have already been set in motion."
Sri Lanka's top officials have acknowledged that intelligence units were aware of threats by the militant group blamed for the attack — National Thowheeth Jama'ath — weeks ahead of the Easter blasts.
But the President and Prime Minister, who have been embroiled in a political feud since last October, both said they were kept in the dark.
Mr Sirisena told reporters that top defence and police chiefs had not shared information with him about the impending attacks.
He also blamed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's Government for weakening the intelligence system by focusing on the prosecution of military officers over alleged war crimes during a decade-long civil war with Tamil separatists.
"It is not a secret that issues between me and the Government worsened in the last two years. One of the main reasons for that is that I criticise inside and outside the Government for the weakening of the intelligence services and arresting military officers unnecessarily.
"In this incident the defence secretary and the police chief have completely failed to carry out their responsibilities. They at least should have given me a phone call. They both came on April 14 to send me [New Year] greetings, even at that time they didn't tell me about this intelligence report."