Sri Lanka treads cautiously post IS attacks on churches, hotels
It would always be remembered as Black Easter in the Sri Lankan history when more than 300 people died in a series of explosions carried out by Islamic State helped by local extremists groups.
A week later, Sri Lanka’s Catholics awoke preparing to celebrate Mass in their homes by a televised broadcast as churches across the island nation shut over fears of militant attacks.
The US Embassy in Colombo has warned against attending any service at a place of worship this weekend.
In the eastern district of Ampara on Sunday, where a gunfight and explosions left 15 people dead the previous day, soldiers guarded St. Mary Magdalen’s Church, where a sign on the gate said the church and the school would be closed until May 6. A nearby mosque also had soldiers stationed outside, reported Associated Press.
The Islamic State group, meanwhile, claimed three of the militants who blew themselves up during a bloody police raid in Ampara linked to the Easter bombings.
In a statement carried by the extremists’ Aamaq news agency, IS identified the bombers by their noms du guerre as Abu Hammad, Abu Sufyan and Abu al-Qa’qa. It said they opened fire with automatic weapons and “after exhausting their ammunition, detonated … their explosive belts.”
The government, crippled from a long political crisis between the president and prime minister last year, promised swift action to capture militants still at large. President Maithripala Sirisena said about 140 people had been identified as having links to the Islamic State group.
A “major search operation has been undertaken,” Sirisena said. “Every household in the country will be checked.”
Police confirmed that the leader of the local militant group blamed for the attack, Mohamed Zahran, died in the suicide bombing at the Shangri-La Hotel, one of six hotels and churches attacked. Zahran appeared in an IS video claiming responsibility for the coordinated assault, and authorities in both Sri Lanka and Australia confirmed links between IS and the attack.
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, US, Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals.