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Radical leader killed in Easter hotel attack, Sri Lankan president says

More than 250 people were killed in the suicide bombings on Easter Sunday.

A guard near St Anthony's Shrine in Sri Lanka, where one of eight bombs exploded last Sunday.
A guard near St Anthony's Shrine in Sri Lanka, where one of eight bombs exploded last Sunday.
Image: PA Images

Updated Apr 26th 2019, 10:15 PM

AN EXTREMIST LEADER at the centre of Sri Lanka’s Easter suicide bombings died in the attacks, the country’s president has said.

The announcement came as security forces today guarded mosques around the country during weekly prayers amid fears of reprisal strikes.

Forces stepped up their searches for Islamists and raided a studio used by them to record a video pledge to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before carrying out the deadly Easter attacks.

At least 253 people were killed and hundreds more injured when suicide bombers struck three churches and three luxury hotels earlier this week.

President Maithripala Sirisena told reporters that Zahran Hashim, head of a local extremist group, was killed at one of the Colombo hotels targeted.

“What intelligence agencies have told me is that Zahran was killed during the Shangri-La attack,” he said.

Hashim was accompanied by a second bomber identified as Ilham Ibrahim, Sirisena said.

Authorities had been desperately searching for Hashim after naming his group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), as the perpetrators of the attack.

DNA tests are being done on a severed head to conclusively establish that it is of Hashim’s, officials said, adding they believe the tests will prove positive.

Hashim, who founded the NTJ, appeared in a video released by the Islamic State group when it claimed the strikes. He is seen leading seven others in a pledge of allegiance to Baghdadi.

Police said they found the IS flag, the backdrop and the clothes the men wore for their video in the studio in the town of Sammanthurai, 370km east of the capital.

The discovery came as police and security forces pursued their hunt for Islamic extremists.

There were reports of explosions at another location in the same area where troops and a small group of militants exchanged fire for over an hour, military spokesman brigadier Sumith Atapattu said.

He said there were no fatalities among troops, but the area was still not cleared.

Top police official resigns 

Earlier, the country’s top police official, Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundara, resigned over failures that led to the series of bomb attacks..

The death toll was revised down from the previous figure of 359 yesterday, when officials revealed that some bodies were so badly mutilated that they had been double-counted. 

“The IGP has resigned. He has sent his resignation to the acting defence secretary. I’ll nominate a new IGP soon,” Sirisena told reporters today. His resignation follows that of the country’s top defence ministry official, who stepped down yesterday. 

The government has been on the defensive over revelations that specific warnings about an attack that were issued weeks in advance were 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 claimed.

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

The minister, who is also the defence and law and order minister, pledged to make “major changes in the leadership of the security forces” yesterday.

Investigators are still piecing information together about the attack and those involved.

Earlier this week, it emerged 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.

© AFP 2019, with reporting by Stephen McDermott and Órla Ryan 

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