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Apr 24, 2019

Asia & Pacific I Sri Lanka’s president orders two top national security officials to step down after the Easter attacks that killed 359

By Joanna Slater and

Sri Lanka's state minister of defense, Ruwan Wijewardene (L), speaks during a news conference in Colombo on April 24, 2019. (Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images)
BREAKING: President Maithripala Sirisena has asked for the resignations of the country’s police chief and defense secretary as furor grows over the government’s handling of advance intelligence related to the bombings.
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Nine suicide bombers, including a married couple, carried out the devastating Easter attacks in Sri Lanka that killed 359 people, authorities said Wednesday, revealing new details about the network behind the string of bombings.
Eight of the attackers have been identified, said police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera. The group included two brothers and a woman, who blew herself up on Sunday when police closed in on a house in the capital, Colombo.
Ruwan Wijewardene, the state minister for defense, told reporters that the bombers used two safe houses in Colombo and Negombo. They came from middle-class and upper-class backgrounds, he said, and some were “quite well-educated people.” One of them had studied in Britain and Australia.
Sixty people have been arrested in connection with the attacks on churches and hotels, including Mohamed Ibrahim, a wealthy businessman who imported spices and owned the home in Colombo’s Dematagoda neighborhood where the police conducted a raid on Sunday.
Two of his sons were suicide bombers, and it was his daughter-in-law who detonated explosives when police officers came to the house, killing three of them and herself.
Wijewardene said the bombers had split from the National Thowheed Jamaath, an obscure Islamist extremist group based in the eastern part of the country. The leader of the splinter group carried out the suicide attack on Colombo’s Shangri-La hotel, he said.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attacks, but Sri Lankan authorities said its role remains unclear. Wijewardene said there was a connection to the Islamic State “through ideology and maybe funding,” but the latter is still under investigation.
Wijewardene said Sri Lanka’s intelligence agencies assessed that deadly attacks last month on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, “motivated these people to carry it out on Easter Sunday.” He declined to provide any further details on how that assessment was reached. 
Police also revealed how efforts by pastors at the Zion Church in the coastal city of Batticaloa saved lives. The bomber had originally targeted St. Mary’s Cathedral there but left when he realized mass was over, according to the senior police superintendent of Batticaloa, Nuwan Mendi.
Instead the bomber, carrying a backpack and another bag, headed for the nearby Zion Church and attempted to enter the congregation area where some 500 people were gathered. He was stopped by pastors who were suspicious of him and ended up detonating his explosives in the courtyard, where some children were eating breakfast, killing at least 28 people.
The country remained on edge on Wednesday, and authorities carried out controlled explosions on motorbikes in downtown Colombo and the suburb of Maradama, as well as on a package near a restaurant in the town of Katana.
Wijewardene urged citizens to remain vigilant and said further arrests would take place.
“Within a couple of days, we can have total control of this situation,” he said.

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