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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 
the attacks.

   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 
world.

   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 
online.

   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 
sectarian conflict.

   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. 


(KA)

 
 
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