Lankan defence secretary, police chief asked to quit in blast aftermath

Lankan defence secretary, police chief asked to quit in blast aftermath
The injured mother of Sajuni, 23, who died during a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday, mourns at her funeral in Negombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday. Photo: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Colombo: Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has asked his police chief and defence secretary to resign after a suicide attack that claimed 359 lives could not be averted despite intelligence warnings.

The Easter Sunday suicide bomber attacks on the island state killed 359 people and wounded about 500.

The re-jig in security top brass comes after the government apologised to its people over its failure to stop bombings. Meanwhile some allege that security issues were a result of a cold war between Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe.

Lankan defence secretary, police chief asked to quit in blast aftermath
Gravediggers watch the arrival of a coffin to a mass burial site during a funeral in Negombo. Photo: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Defence secretary Hemasiri Fernando and Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundara have been asked to leave. The president does not have the constitutional authority to sack IGP.

Deputy Defended Minister Ruwan Wijevardene has said one of the nine suicide bombers who carried out the attack on three churches and three hotels on Easter was a woman. The perpetrator of the plan was also part of the attack. He was let off for lack of evidence in a 2018 case of Buddha statue demolitions.

Another bomb was found on a bike outside a mall in Colombo three days after the attack. This was neutralised later. Bodies of seven Janata Dal (S) leaders killed in the blast were brought to Bangalore.

Blast heard in town east of Sri Lankan capital

An explosion occurred in a town east of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, on Thursday but there were no casualties, a police spokesman said.

Spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said police were investigating the blast on empty land behind the magistrate's court in Pugoda, 40 km (25 miles).

Lankan defence secretary, police chief asked to quit in blast aftermath
A woman prays at a cemetery in Negombo as victims are being buried. Photo: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

"There was an explosion behind the court, we are investigating," he said, adding it was not a controlled explosion like other blasts in recent days.

Muslims flee, Christians grieve in town torn by violence

As mourners buried the remains of Christian worshippers killed by the attacks, hundreds of Muslim refugees fled Negombo on the country's west coast where communal tensions have flared in recent days.

At least 359 people perished in the coordinated series of blasts targeting churches and hotels. Church leaders believe the final toll from the attack on St Sebastian's Church in Negombo could be close to 200, almost certainly making Negombo the deadliest of the six near-simultaneous attacks.

On Wednesday, hundreds of Pakistani Muslims fled the multi-ethnic port an hour north of the capital, Colombo. Crammed into buses organised by community leaders and police, they left fearing for their safety after threats of revenge from locals.

"Because of the bomb blasts and explosions that have taken place here, the local Sri Lankan people have attacked our houses," Adnan Ali, a Pakistani Muslim, told Reuters as he prepared to board a bus. "Right now we don't know where we will go."

Lankan defence secretary, police chief asked to quit in blast aftermath
Pallbearers carry the coffin of Sajuni, 23, who died during the attack, at her funeral in Negombo, Wednesday. Photo: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks, yet despite Islamic State being a Sunni jihadist group, many of the Muslims fleeing Negombo belong to the Ahmadi community, who had been hounded out of Pakistan years ago after their sect was declared non-Muslim.

The fallout from Sunday's attacks appears set to render them homeless once more.

Farah Jameel, a Pakistani Ahmadi, said she had been thrown out of her house by her landlord.

"She said 'get out of here and go wherever you want to go, but don't live here',” she told Reuters, gathered with many others at the Ahmadiyya Mosque, waiting for buses to take them to a safe location.

I have nothing now”

Sri Lanka's government is in disarray over the failure to prevent the attacks, despite repeated warnings from intelligence sources.

Police have detained an unspecified number of people were detained in western Sri Lanka, the scene of anti-Muslim riots in 2014, in the wake of the attacks, and raids were carried out in neighbourhoods around St Sebastian's Church.

Lankan defence secretary, police chief asked to quit in blast aftermath
Security forces stand guard at St. Antony shrine. Photo: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Police played down the threats to the refugees, but said they have been inundated with calls from locals casting suspicion on Pakistanis in Negombo.

"We have to search houses if people suspect," said Herath BSS Sisila Kumara, the officer in charge at Katara police station, where 35 of the Pakistanis that gathered at the mosque were taken into police custody for their own protection, before being sent to an undisclosed location.

"All the Pakistanis have been sent to safe houses," he said. "Only they will decide when they come back."

Two kilometres away, makeshift wooden crosses marked the new graves at the sandy cemetery of St Sebastian's Church, as the latest funerals on Wednesday took the number buried there to 40.

Channa Repunjaya, 49, was at home when he heard about the blast at St Sebastian's. His wife, Chandralata Dassanaike and nine-year-old daughter Meeranhi both died.

"I felt like committing suicide when I heard that they had died,” he told Reuters by the open graves. "I have nothing now."

Meeranhi's grandmother, with her head still bandaged after being wounded in the attack, was held by a relative as the first handfuls of earth were scattered upon her child-sized coffin.

Most of Sri Lanka's 22 million people are Buddhist, but the Indian Ocean island's population includes Muslim, Hindu and Christian minorities. Until now, Christians had largely managed to avoid the worst of the island's conflict and communal tensions.

Lankan defence secretary, police chief asked to quit in blast aftermath
Locals watch a funeral procession in Negombo, Wednesday. Photo: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

There were signs of some religious communities pulling together following Sunday's outrage.

Saffron- and scarlet-robed Buddhist monks from a nearby monastery handed out bottled water to mourners who gathered under a baking afternoon sun.

But the town, which has a long history of sheltering refugees – including those made homeless by a devastating tsunami in 2004 – may struggle to recover from Sunday's violence, said Father Jude Thomas, one of dozens of Catholic priests who attended Wednesday's burials.

"Muslims and Catholics lived side by side," he said. "It was always a peaceful area, but now things have come to the surface we cannot control."

(With inputs from Reuters)