The suspected leader of a militant group that Sri Lankan authorities have said carried out a series of Easter Sunday bombings died in the blast at the Shangri-La hotel, one of six hotels and churches targeted in the attacks that killed at least 250 people, officials said yesterday.
Police said on Twitter that Mohammed Zahran, the leader of local militant group National Thowheeth Jama’ath known for his vitriolic extremist speeches on social media, had been killed in one of the nine suicide bombings.
Police also said that they had arrested the group’s second in command.
Investigators had determined that the assailants’ military training was provided by someone they called “Army Mohideen,” police said, adding that weapons training had taken place overseas and at some locations in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province.
The attackers had worked out at a local gym and by playing soccer using their authentic national identity cards, they said.
The vehicles used in the attacks were purchased from a dealership in Kadawatha, a suburb of the capital, Colombo, they added.
The operator of a copper factory who was arrested in connection with the bombings helped Mohideen make improvised explosive devices and purchase empty cartridges sold by the Sri Lankan military as scrap copper, police said.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison earlier yesterday said that it had been confirmed that the attackers were supported by the Islamic State group, which has claimed responsibility for the attacks and distributed video of Zahran and others pledging allegiance to the withered “caliphate.”
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena told reporters in Colombo that about 140 people in the island nation had been identified as having links to the Islamic State group, adding that the Sri Lankan government has “the capability “to completely control” its activities in the country.
“We will completely control this, and create a free and peaceful environment for people to live,” he said.
Sirisena blamed the defense secretary, who resigned on Thursday, and police chief, who he said would soon step down, for a failure to share weeks of information from international intelligence agencies about the plot ahead of time.
Across Colombo yesterday there was a visible increase of security as authorities warned of another attack and pursued suspects that could have access to explosives.
Armed soldiers stood guard outside St Anthony’s Shrine, one of the three churches attacked, and nearby shops were closed.
Gration Fernando made the sign of the cross when he looked at the church after walking out of his shop.
Fernando said that he, like other Sri Lankans, was worried about further attacks.
There is “no security, no safety to go to church,” he said, adding that “now children are scared to go to church” as well.
Authorities told Muslims to pray at home rather than attend communal Friday prayers that are the most important of the week.
In an interview on Thursday, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that he feared some of the suspects “may go out for a suicide attack.”
Afterward, in an unusually specific warning, the US embassy in Sri Lanka said that places of worship could be hit by extremists this weekend.
The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised its citizens not to travel to the island nation.
Late on Thursday, The Sri Lankan Ministry of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine drastically revised down its estimated death toll from the coordinated attacks.
“Approximately” 253 people had died, nearly one-third less than the police’s estimated death toll of 359, it said in a statement.
The discrepancy was not immediately explained, but it fit a pattern of often contradictory claims by Sri Lankan officials that have muddled the investigation.
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