Sri Lanka authorities were warned two weeks before attacks, says minister – The Guardian

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Sri Lankan authorities were warned two weeks before the Easter Sunday attacks, and had the names of suspects, a cabinet spokesman has said, as the death toll from the string of bombings rose to 290, with about 500 injured. “Fourteen days before these incidents occurred, we had been informed about these incidents,” Rajitha Senaratne told a press conference in the capital, Colombo, on Monday. “On 9 April, the chief of national intelligence wrote a letter and in this letter many of the names of the members of the terrorist organisation were written down.” Senaratne said the intelligence memo warning about the attacks had named the radical islamist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath as the perpetrators. National Thowheeth Jama’ath is a newly formed radical islamist group in Sri Lanka who are strong proponents of the global jihadist movement. They are known for being a virulently anti-Buddhist and have been linked to the vandalisation of Buddhist statues, with four of their members arrested in January. However, he emphasised that the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and his cabinet were “not informed” of the warnings and had not been given the letter about possible attacks because they were not invited to the national security council meetings, which are led by Sri Lankan president, Maithripala Sirisena. The remarks by the prime minister and his cabinet ministers have led to concerns that there will be a politicisation of the security failures that led to the attacks. The rift between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena is well known, after the president’s unsuccessful attempt to sack the prime minister in October, and there are fears the country could be thrown into political turmoil once again. Senaratne told the press conference investigators believed those who had carried out the attacks were all Sri Lankan nationals, but did not rule out that the attackers had international assistance. By Monday, the police had 24 suspects in custody. Ruwan Gunasekara, said they had seized a van and driver they believe transported the suspects into Colombo, and also raided a safe house used by the attackers. Three officers were among the dead when the eighth bomb went off during a raid on a housing complex in Colombo during the hunt for the attackers. However, the country was still on high alert on Monday afternoon after the police uncovered 87 bomb detonators at Colombo’s main bus station. While the government-imposed nationwide curfew was initially lifted at 6am, the authorities announced it would be reinstated from 8pm on Monday until 4am on Tuesday amid continuing security concerns. In Negombo, north of the capital, yellow crime scene tape stretched around the perimeter of St Sebastian’s church, a day after a blast ripped through the congregation. The courtyard was littered with flowers, shattered stained glass and red and pink debris from the building. Catholic sisters and priests took turns peering through the destroyed windows of the church at the carnage inside. “We cannot explain this,” said Father Danushka Fernando. “This was supposed to be the mass of the children, so lots of women and children were present.” In the church, investigators wore balaclavas as they surveyed the scene. Pews were strewn across the floor around the point near the back of the church where a terrorist had detonated his backpack. Parts of the roof and walls had been blown away, revealing the bricks and blue tarpaulin underneath. Red candles were still in bunches at the ends of some of the pews. Another priest in the courtyard said he was struggling to contain himself. “If this is done by who I suspect – is this their religion?” he said. “This is insanity. As leaders we must ask people to love one another,” he added, declining to give his name. “But speaking as a person, I am angry.” As Sri Lankans tried to come to terms with the atrocity, questions were being asked as to whether security services could have prevented the attack. The defence minister, Ruwan Wijewardene, said the culprits were religious extremists but declined to specify further, and no group has directly claimed responsibility yet. Hundreds of Sri Lankans and at least 30 foreigners – including those from the UK, Turkey, Japan, the Netherlands, China, Portugal, Australia and India – were killed in the coordinated attacks, the worst in Sri Lanka since the civil war ended a decade ago. Questions remain as to what could have been done to prevent the explosions. Wickremesinghe earlier conceded that the Sri Lankan intelligence services had been “aware of information” of a possible attack on churches up to 10 days ago, but that his ministers had not been informed, and said the government “must look into why adequate precautions were not taken”. On Monday morning, the president and prime minister convened a meeting with top military officials at an emergency session of the national security council to investigate the attacks. Wickremesinghe’s claims were echoed by the telecommunications minister, Harin Fernando, who, on Sunday night, tweeted images of a memo from the intelligence services, dated 11 April, which laid out details of a possible planned attack. Speaking to the Today Programme, Fernando said the government also had not ruled out an attempted coup. “There are so many ways we could look at this, but right now our biggest priority would be to find what really led these eight or 10 or 12 men to carry out this attack,” he said. “But we are not ruling out a coup as well.” On Monday morning, Wickremesinghe visited one of the churches destroyed in the blast. “Orders have been given to find those responsible,” he told reporters at the scene. “They will be given all powers they want. We cannot allow these crimes to take place. We will also look into the shortcomings. For the next few days the important thing is to maintain peace.” The eight blasts, which police confirmed were suicide bomb attacks, seemed designed to cause maximum casualties, targeting worshippers at Easter Sunday services and guests having breakfast in the Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels in Colombo. One witness described a suicide bomber detonating his device when he reached the front of a buffet queue at the Shangri-La restaurant. A British woman and her 11-year-old son are widely reported to be among those who died while having breakfast at the hotel. Fears of more attacks continued through Sunday. An unexploded improvised device was found by police later that night on the roadside near Colombo airport, described by an airforce spokesperson as “a crude six-foot pipe bomb”. Details about those who had died in the attacks began to trickle out slowly on Monday morning. One of the first Sri Lankans confirmed dead was the celebrity chef Shantha Mayadunne, who had been having breakfast at the Shangri-La with her family when the blast went off. The police declined say which site had been worst hit or to break down the death toll. However, it is thought at least 50 people were killed at St Sebastian’s church in the seaside town of Negombo and at least 160 people were injured in a blast at St Anthony’s shrine in Colombo. The curfew, which had been imposed nationwide from 6pm on Sunday, was lifted on Monday morning but commandos still stood guard at the hotels and churches. A government block on social media sites and apps such as Facebook and WhatsApp remained, which the government said was to prevent the spread of misinformation that could further inflame tensions. As the curfew lifted on Monday morning in Negombo, where St Sebastian’s church had been overflowing with people attending the Easter service, members of the congregation gathered to take in the devastation. Among them was Dilip Fernando, who had narrowly avoided being inside the church during mass because it was too crowded, but believed his family members had seen the suicide bomber, a “young and innocent looking man”, entering St Sebastian’s with a backpack. “At the end of the mass they saw one young man go into the church with a heavy bag,” Fernando told Agence France-Presse. “He touched my granddaughter’s head on the way past. It was the bomber. He was not excited or afraid. He was so calm.”