Sri Lanka Death Toll Climbs to 359 04/24 06:40
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) -- The death toll from the Easter suicide bombings
in Sri Lanka rose to 359, police said Wednesday, as the country's leaders vowed
to overhaul the security apparatus amid a series of intelligence lapses before
U.S. Ambassador Alaina Teplitz, meanwhile, told reporters that "clearly
there was some failure in the system." Sri Lanka's leaders have said some of
the country's security units were aware before Easter of possible attacks, but
did not share those warnings widely.
Teplitz said the U.S. had "no prior knowledge" of a threat before the
bombings. She said a team of FBI agents and U.S. military officials were
helping in the investigation.
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility and released images that
purported to show the seven bombers who blew themselves up at three churches
and three hotels Sunday in the worst violence this South Asian island nation
has seen since its civil war ended a decade ago.
The government has said the attacks were carried out by Islamic
fundamentalists in apparent retaliation for last months' New Zealand mosque
massacre but has said the seven bombers were all Sri Lankan. Prime Minister
Ranil Wickremesinghe said investigators were still working to determine the
extent of the bombers' foreign links.
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said Wednesday morning that 18 additional
suspects were arrested overnight, raising the total detained to 58.
The Islamic State group has lost all the territory it once held in Iraq and
Syria and has made a series of unsupported claims of responsibility around the
Sri Lankan authorities have blamed a local extremist group, National Towheed
Jamaar, whose leader, alternately known as Mohammed Zahran or Zahran Hashmi,
became known to Muslim leaders three years ago for his incendiary speeches
Teplitz declined to discuss whether the embassy or U.S. officials had heard
of National Towheed Jamaar or its leader prior to the attack. "If we had heard
something, we would have tried to do something about this," Teplitz said.
The Islamic State group's Aamaq news agency released an image purported to
show the leader of the attackers, standing amid seven others whose faces are
covered. The group did not provide any other evidence for its claim, and the
identities of those depicted in the image were not independently verified.
Meanwhile, in an address to Parliament, Ruwan Wijewardene, the state
minister of defense, said "weakness" within Sri Lanka's security apparatus led
to the failure to prevent the nine bombings.
"By now it has been established that the intelligence units were aware of
this attack and a group of responsible people were informed about the impending
attack," Wijewardene said. "However, this information has been circulated among
only a few officials."
In a live address to the nation late Tuesday, Sri Lanka President
Maithripala Sirisena said he also was kept in the dark on the intelligence
about the planned attacks and vowed to "take stern action" against the
officials who failed to share the information. He also pledged "a complete
restructuring" of the security forces.
Wijewardene said the government had evidence that the bombings were carried
out "by an Islamic fundamentalist group" in retaliation for the March 15 mosque
shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, that killed 50 people, although he did
not disclose the evidence.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters in Auckland on
Wednesday that she'd had no official word from Sri Lanka, or seen any
intelligence reports, to back that up. However, she added that Sri Lanka was in
the early stages of its investigation.
An Australian white supremacist was arrested in the Christchurch shootings.
The history of Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, a country of 21 million
including large Hindu, Muslim and Christian minorities, is rife with ethnic and
In the 26-year civil war, the Tamil Tigers rebel army had little history of
targeting Christians and was crushed by the government in 2009. Anti-Muslim
bigotry fed by Buddhist nationalists has swept the country recently but Sri
Lanka has no history of Islamic militancy. Its small Christian community has
seen only scattered incidents of harassment.