Colombo, Sri Lanka, Apr 25 – Fifteen people including six children died in a battle between Sri Lankan security forces and suicide bombers who blew themselves up in the latest fallout from the Easter attacks, police said Saturday.
Three men set off explosives that killed themselves, three women and six children inside what was believed to a jihadist hideout near the eastern town of Kalmunai on Friday night.
“Three other men, also believed to be suicide bombers, were found dead outside the house,” police added in a statement. The three outside were shot dead by security forces, police officials added.
Security forces tried to storm the house and a one-hour long gun battle ensued before the explosions, a military official said.
A civilian was also killed in the crossfire during the night-time raid near the predominantly Muslim town, with hundreds of families later fleeing their homes.
Police and troops have stepped up raids after the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the suicide attacks on three churches and three luxury hotels, which killed least 253 people and injured 500.
Kalmunai is in the same region as the home town of the jihadist Zahran Hashim who founded the group accused of staging the attacks.
The operation followed a tip-off that people linked to the attacks were in the town, 370 kilometres (230 miles) east of the capital.
– Studio raid –
Video on state television showed explosives, a generator, a drone and a large quantity of batteries inside the house.
The clashes came hours after security forces raided a nearby location where they believe Hashim and the other bombers recorded a video pledge of allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before carrying out the attacks.
Police said they found an IS flag and uniforms similar to those worn by the eight fighters for the video. IS released the video two days after the attacks.
Authorities named Hashim’s group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), as the perpetrators of the attack, but announced Friday he had been killed in the bombing of the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo.
The government is on the defensive over its failure to heed a foreign intelligence warning that NTJ was planning suicide bombings on churches.
Police chief Pujith Jayasundara became the second top official to resign over the blunders Friday, after top defence ministry official Hemasiri Fernando also stepped down.
Sri Lanka’s Catholic leader, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, has said he felt “betrayed” by the government’s failure to act on the warnings.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe apologised on Friday.
“We take collective responsibility and apologise to our fellow citizens for our failure to protect victims of these tragic events,” the PM wrote on Twitter.
Amidst fears of new attacks, the Roman Catholic church has suspended all public services across the country until security is guaranteed by the government, with the archbishop appealing to Catholics to stay home and say private prayers.
Security has been stepped up at churches and mosques across the South Asian nation.
Some groups were expected to hold public vigils in Colombo and Negombo, where St Sebastian’s Church suffered some of the worst casualties in the bombings.
The military have poured troops onto the streets to back up police as they search for suspects using newly granted powers under a state of emergency.
At least 94 people are in custody, including a man believed to be the father of two of the bombers. Authorities warned the hunt would continue.
“We now have info that there are about 140 people in Sri Lanka linked to the Islamic State. We can and we will eradicate all of them very soon,” President Maithripala Sirisena said Friday, announcing new legislation on extremist groups.
– Tourism hit –
Dozens of foreigners died in the attacks and the government has said it expects the number of overseas tourists to fall by 30 percent this year, at a cost of $1.5 billion in revenues.
Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera said the island — which depends on tourism as a cornerstone of its economy — could take up to two years to fully recover.
The US State Department on Friday escalated its travel warning for Sri Lanka and ordered the departure of all school-age family members of US government employees.
Other nations including Israel, Australia and Britain have already warned against visiting Sri Lanka.