Sri Lanka paying deadly price for political infighting: analysts

Colombo (AFP) –


Crucial intelligence that could have prevented Sri Lanka's Easter attacks went ignored in part because of feuding between the country's leaders, experts say.

The government has admitted "major" lapses in its failure to act on intelligence warnings, and analysts say a longstanding political crisis is to blame.

The warnings were clear: On April 11, Sri Lanka's police chief issued an alert saying that radical Islamist group National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ) planned suicide bombings of "prominent churches", citing alerts from a foreign intelligence agency.

The document was addressed to several top officials, but neither the prime minister nor the deputy defence minister were among the recipients.

That comes as little surprise to experts familiar with Sri Lanka's messy political scene, which has been dominated by wrangling between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena.

Sirisena also serves as defence and law and order minister.

"As part of his ongoing war with the prime minister, the president has tried to weaken him in many ways, including taking the police under his control," said Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka specialist at the International Crisis Group think tank.

"So it's entirely possible that the police wouldn't share information with ministers not aligned with the president," Keenan told AFP.

- 'Criminal negligence' -

The attempt to shut out Wickremesinghe follows efforts by Sirisena to sack the premier last year.

Although the prime minister was eventually reinstated after a court ruling, the bad blood between the two men persists.

Hours after the Easter Sunday bombings that killed 359 people, Wickremesinghe called an urgent meeting of the armed forces chiefs.

But Sirisena was still out of the country on holiday and the military leadership initially refused to attend, saying they answered solely to the president, official sources told AFP.

They only agreed to the request after Wickremesinghe turned up at their headquarters in the defence ministry, the sources added.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, head of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives, said the political infighting meant security concerns had been relegated to the backburner.

"The national security council has not met with the participation of the prime minister and the deputy minister of defence for four months," he told AFP.

"What on earth were the two of them doing?" he said, accusing both the president and prime minister of allowing personal animosity to overshadow security concerns.

"The leaders are there to protect the people and that they have failed to do and... (people) have paid with their lives. This is criminal negligence."

- 'Looking for leadership' -

But bickering alone does not explain why Sri Lanka's security apparatus -- populated by officers with years of experience fighting a decades-long Tamil insurgency -- ignored warnings of an attack.

Political commentator Kusal Perera said the police were familiar with the NTJ and its potential to carry out attacks, referring to a raid in January at a training camp that turned up explosives and detonators.

"Is it only their responsibility to collect intelligence, not question suspects? During the civil war they never waited for the president and prime minister to instruct them before rounding up suspects and interrogating people," Perera said.

"Agencies responsible for maintaining law and order should not sit back and relax and wait for instructions after finding evidence of possible attacks," he said.

President Sirisena has vowed a major shake-up of the military's top brass in the wake of the bombings, and an investigation is underway to establish why police did not share intelligence with Wickremesinghe's office.

With elections due this year, the government is under mounting pressure.

Former strongman leader Mahinda Rajapakse has wasted no time in blasting its failure to keep Sri Lankans safe, accusing the authorities of "crippling" the security agencies.

ICG analyst Keenan told AFP that "Sri Lankans have an absolute right to be very angry but the problem is there is no way to hold anyone to account."

"What you have is a fearful, brokenhearted public who are looking for leadership and not finding it."