Sri Lanka on high alert as police hunt 140 Daesh Takfiri terrorist group members

Security personnel stand guard outside a mosque during Friday noon prayer in Colombo on April 26, 2019, following a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. (Photo by AFP)
President Maithripala Sirisena says the country's police and security forces are looking for more than 100 individuals with links to the Daesh Takfiri terrorist group.

The country remains on high alert in the aftermath of a string of bombings that claimed the lives of more than 250 people on the Easter Sunday.

Sirisena said Friday that police were looking for no less than 140 Daesh sympathizers, adding some Sri Lankan youths had been involved with the terror group since 2013.

Almost 10,000 soldiers were being deployed across the Southeast Asian country to carry out searches and provide security for religious centers, the military said on Friday.

Sri Lanka and the world were shocked on Easter Sunday after eight apparently coordinated blasts hit churches and luxury hotels in the capital, Colombo, and the cities of Negombo and Batticaloa.

The government, which has blamed a small group known as the Nations Thawahid Jaman (NTJ) for the attacks, has so far detained at least 76 people.

The NTJ has yet to claim responsibility for the bombings. Instead, Daesh has released footage of eight men whom it said had carried out the attacks that five days ago.

The response of Sri Lanka’s security apparatus to the attacks was quickly questioned after reports stated earlier this week that intelligence officials had been alerted about potential bombings weeks before the attacks on Sunday.
Sri Lanka’s own police chief had also warned of a security threat against churches and the Indian high commission in Colombo 10 days before the attacks.

The questionable performance has prompted Sirisena to ask the police chief and the defense secretary to resign. On Tuesday, he pledged to "completely restructure the police and security forces in the coming weeks."

The Sri Lankan head of state said Friday that top defense and police chiefs had not shared information with him about the attacks.

He further accused Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government of weakening the intelligence system by focusing on the prosecution of military officers over alleged war crimes during a decade-long civil war between the so-called Tamil Tigers and the government.

The civil war ended in 2009 with an estimated 100,000 deaths.The prime minister, who said earlier that neither he nor his cabinet ministers were informed about the warnings, blamed the attacks on a "breakdown of communication."

According to government sources, opposing factions aligned to the prime minister and the president often refuse to communicate with each other and blame any setbacks on their opponents.

The major lapse in intelligence sharing has sparked a feud between the prime minister and the president, who have been engaged in an intense animosity that led to a constitutional crisis last year.

Muslim community urged to avoid Friday prayers

Muslims in the country, who form a tenth of the population, have been warned to pray at home and avoid attending mosques or churches on Friday.Muslims attend their Friday prayers at a mosque in the capital Colombo, April 26, 2019. (Photo by Reuters)
The All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ullama, Sri Lanka's main Islamic religious body, issued the warning on Friday after the State Intelligence Services warned of possible car bomb attacks.

Many, however, attended their prayers at mosques across the country.

At least 700 refugees from a persecuted Islamic sect are in hiding after fleeing their homes in the Sri Lankan port city of Negombo, British daily the Guardian reported.

"A group of around 500 Muslims are being sheltered in one city, which the Guardian is not naming," the paper said.

There was a significant police presence outside their location and dozens of locals were protesting, calling for the group to be removed from the area, it added.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith also appealed to priests not to conduct mass at churches until further notice, saying, "security is important.”

Several governments issued travel warnings to their citizens on Thursday. The US, Britain, Australia, Turkey India, China, Denmark, Netherlands and Portugal called on their nationals to avoid Sri Lanka unless it was absolutely necessary because there could be more attacks.