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IS group claims responsibility for Easter attacks in Sri Lanka

Lakruwan Wanniarachchi, AFP | Sri Lankan security personnel stand guard in front of St Anthony's Shrine two days after it was attacked as part of a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and hotels, in Colombo on April 23, 2019.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility on Tuesday for a series of deadly attacks on Sri Lankan churches and hotels that killed nearly 360 people on Easter Sunday. The authenticity of the claim could not be independently verified.

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The claim emerged more than 48 hours after the near-simultaneous blasts tore through three high-end hotels popular with foreigners and three churches packed with Christians marking Easter.

Authorities said early Wednesday the death toll from the attacks had risen to 359.

The Sri Lankan government had already pointed the finger at a little-known local Islamic extremist group called National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), but said it was investigating whether they had international support.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he believed the Easter Sunday attacks had links to the IS group. "We will be following up on [the] IS [group] claims, we believe there may be links," Wickremesinghe told reporters at a press conference in Colombo Tuesday.

Security agencies were also monitoring Sri Lankans who had travelled abroad to join the IS group in Syria and had returned home, said Wickremesinghe.

In a second statement released Tuesday, the IS group gave the noms de guerre of seven people who it said were behind the "blessed attack" that targeted Christians during their "blasphemous holiday", referring to Easter.

It also released a photo of eight men it said were behind the blasts. Seven of them had their faces covered and three of them held knives. The one man who displayed his bearded face also appeared to carry an assault rifle.

The authenticity of the image could not be immediately be verified.

Mandakini Gahlot reporting from Colombo

‘Retaliation’ for New Zealand mosque attacks

His comments came hours after Sri Lankan Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene told parliament that the Easter Sunday bombings were “carried out in retaliation” for the March 15 attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The office of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was aware of the comments linking the Sri Lankan attacks to the Christchurch mosque attacks, but she had not “seen any intelligence upon which such an assessment might be based”. The statement added that “the Sri Lankan investigation into the attack is in its early stages”.

The IS group statement claiming the attack, which was released by the jihadist organisation’s propaganda agency, Amaq, made no reference to the Christchurch bombings.

Police have detained at least 58 people, with a further 18 arrested overnight Tuesday, as they investigate the worst act of violence in Sri Lanka since a civil war ended a decade ago.

Sri Lankan PM Ranil Wickremesinghe discusses the Easter attacks

‘Hard to bear’

On Tuesday, grieving Sri Lankans began to bury their dead and the country observed a day of national mourning.

Three minutes of silence were marked nationwide from 8:30am (0300 GMT), the time the first suicide bomber struck on Sunday, unleashing carnage.

Flags were lowered to half-mast on government buildings, and liquor shops were ordered closed for the day.

Hours earlier, the government imposed a state of emergency giving police and the military special powers including the ability to arrest suspects without a court order.

More than a thousand people gathered Tuesday at St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, north of the capital, which was among those devastated in the blasts, to pay tribute to the dead.

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An elderly man wept uncontrollably by the coffin bearing the body of his wife, while relatives of other victims stood aghast and silent.

Coffins were carried into the church grounds one by one for services, and then to a newly-established cemetery on church land.

“It’s beyond words,” said Father Suranga Warnakulasuriya, who had come from another parish to help conduct funerals.

“It’s very hard to bear. For me it is very difficult, so imagine how hard it is for the loved ones.”

The attacks were the worst ever against the country’s small Christian minority, who make up just seven percent of the 21 million population.

Troubled coalition and security lapses

Officials are investigating why more precautions were not taken after an April 11 warning from Sri Lanka’s police that a “foreign intelligence agency” had reported the NTJ planned suicide attacks on churches.

On Monday, government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said the warning was not passed on to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe or other top ministers.

Relations between Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have been strained since Sirisena fired Wickremesinghe last October over political differences, only to reinstate him weeks later under pressure from the Supreme Court.

But at the press conference Tuesday, Wickremesinghe appeared to downplay the rifts within his coalition government. Investigators were making “good progress” identifying culprits behind the attacks, he said. “Our priority is to apprehend the offenders whatever we have, we have to sort it out between ourselves,” said Wickremesinghe.

Foreign tourists, children among victims

More details have begun to emerge about some of the foreigners killed in the blasts.

The US reported at least four Americans killed including a child and the Netherlands raised their toll to three.

A Danish billionaire lost three of his children in the attacks, a spokesman for his company said.

Eight Britons, ten Indians and nationals from Turkey, Australia, Japan and Portugal, were also killed, according to Sri Lankan officials and foreign governments.

The United Nations said at least 45 children, Sri Lankans and foreigners, were among those killed.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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