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Death toll from Sri Lanka Easter bombings revised down by over 100

Two sons of a wealthy Sri Lankan spice trader are among the suspected suicide bombers.

Relatives of a victim of the explosions mourn during a funeral in Colombo.
Relatives of a victim of the explosions mourn during a funeral in Colombo.
Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Updated Apr 25th 2019, 6:45 PM

SRI LANKAN AUTHORITIES have revised the toll from Easter bombings down to 253, from the previous figure of 359, explaining that some of the badly mutilated bodies had been double-counted. 

The health ministry said medical examiners had completed all autopsies and had concluded that several victims killed in the series of attacks had been counted more than once.

The official toll released by the police was reduced by 106 after the reconciliation of autopsy and DNA reports, the ministry said in a statement.

“Many of the victims were badly mutilated… There was double counting,” the ministry said.

Sri Lanka’s Catholic church has suspended all public services over security fears, as thousands of troops joined the hunt for suspects. 

The move came as the country’s top defence official quit his position with the government facing increasing pressure over its failure to act on Indian intelligence warnings.

Hemasiri Fernando, the most senior bureaucrat at the ministry, sent a letter of resignation to President Maithripala Sirisena’

Authorities made fresh arrests and stepped up security measures as the government faced pressure over its failure to act on Indian intelligence warnings before the suicide bombers blew themselves up in luxury hotels and churches packed with Easter Sunday worshippers.

A senior Catholic priest told AFP that all public services were being suspended and all churches closed “on the advice of security forces”.

There will be no public mass said until further notice.

Recriminations have flown since suicide bombers blew themselves up in luxury hotels and churches packed with worshippers on Easter Sunday.

Overnight, security forces using newly granted powers under the country’s state of emergency arrested 16 more suspects in connection with the attacks.

Sri Lanka Blasts An elderly Sri Lankan woman weeps next to the grave of a family member. Source: Eranga Jayawardena

Police have so far arrested 75 people but tensions remain high with several suspects unaccounted for.

Brigadier Sumith Atapattu said the army had increased its deployment by 1,300 to 6,300 overnight, with the navy and airforce also deploying 2,000 more personnel.

Authorities also announced a ban on drone flights and suspended licences issued to commercial operators with immediate effect.

‘Major’ lapse

The government has been on the defensive over revelations that specific warnings about an attack went ignored.

Sri Lanka’s police chief warned on 11 April that suicide bombings against “prominent churches” by the local Islamist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) were possible, citing information from a foreign intelligence agency.

CNN reported that Indian intelligence services had passed on “unusually specific” information in the weeks before the attacks, some of it from an IS suspect in their custody.

But that information was not shared with the prime minister or other top ministers, the government has said.

“It was a major lapse in the sharing of information,” deputy defence minister Ruwan Wijewardene conceded at a press conference yesterday.

President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also defence and law and order minister, pledged to make “major changes in the leadership of the security forces in the next 24 hours”.

Today, he will meet with the country’s political parties to discuss the crisis, and later with religious leaders as concerns rise about a potential backlash against Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority.

Investigators are still piecing information together about the attack and those involved, with Wijewardene revealing yesterday that one attacker had studied in Britain and did post-graduate studies in Australia before returning to Sri Lanka.

“Most of them are well-educated and come from middle, upper-middle class families, so they are financially quite independent and their families are quite stable financially, that is a worrying factor in this,” the minister added.

Sri Lankan police sources have told AFP that two Muslim brothers, sons of a wealthy Colombo spice trader, blew themselves up at the Shangri-La and the Cinnamon Grand hotels.

Their father is now in custody (you can read the New York Times’ feature on the family here).

Key suspect

An FBI team is now in Sri Lanka, Wijewardene said, and Britain, Australia and the United Arab Emirates have all offered intelligence help.

Experts say the bombings bear many of the hallmarks of IS attacks, and the government has suggested local militants could not have acted alone.

But it has not yet officially confirmed any IS role in the blasts.

A key suspect in the attacks also remains unaccounted for: NTJ leader Zahran Hashim.

He appears to be among eight people seen in a video released on Tuesday by IS after it claimed the attacks, seen leading a pledge of allegiance to IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Officials said it was still unclear whether Hashim was among the suicide attackers or had escaped after the blasts.

Officials have said they cannot rule out further attacks while suspects remain at large.

In all, nine people are believed to have blown themselves up on Sunday, either during attacks or when police attempted to arrest them.

The Kingsbury hotel in the capital was the last one hit. A fourth planned attack on a hotel failed, authorities said. The would-be attacker was followed back to a Colombo lodge, where he blew himself up, killing two people.

Sources close to the investigation said two more people – a man and a woman – blew themselves up at another location as security forces launched a raid. Those blasts killed three police.

Dozens of foreigners were among the victims in the blasts, including three children of a Danish billionaire, eight Britons, 10 Indians and four Americans.

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

© AFP 2019

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