Sri Lankan defense secretary resigns over Easter Sunday bombings

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Security personnel stand guard near St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo on April 24, 2019. All Catholic churches in Sri Lanka will remain closed until security improves. (AFP)
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Security personnel stand guard near St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo on April 24, 2019. All Catholic churches in Sri Lanka will remain closed until security improves. (AFP)
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Hundreds of people in Negombo, Sri Lanka, attend a mass burial on April 24, 2019 for some of the victims of a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday. (REUTERS/Thomas Peter)
Updated 25 April 2019

Sri Lankan defense secretary resigns over Easter Sunday bombings

  • Sri Lankan police arrest three people, seize grenades and other weapons in Colombo raid
  • Authorities on Thursday revised the toll from Easter bombings down to 253, from the previous figure of 359

COLOMBO: Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando told Reuters on Thursday that he had resigned, taking responsibility for the suicide bomber attacks on the country last Sunday.
He said that while there had been no failure on his own part, he was taking responsibility for failures of some institutions he headed as the secretary of defense.
He said that security agencies were actively responding to intelligence they had about the possibility of attacks before they were launched.
“We were working on that. All those agencies were working on that,” he said.

Sri Lankan authorities on Thursday revised the toll from Easter bombings down to 253, from the previous figure of 359, explaining that some of the badly mutilated bodies had been double-counted.
The health ministry said medical examiners had completed all autopsies by late Thursday, and had concluded that several victims killed in the series of attacks had been counted more than once.
The official toll released by the police was reduced by 106 after the reconciliation of autopsy and DNA reports, the ministry said in a statement.

Meanwhile, several arrests have been made in the ongoing manhunt for the bombers.

Sri Lanka’s former navy chief said the father of two of the Easter suicide bombers has been arrested on suspicion of aiding his sons.

Jayanath Colombage, who now is a counter-terrorism expert at the Pathfinder Foundation, confirmed the arrest to The Associated Press on Thursday.

Sri Lankan police have also arrested three people, seized grenades and other weapons in a raid in Colombo.

All of Sri Lanka’s Catholic churches have been ordered to stay closed and suspend services until security improves after deadly Easter bombings, a senior priest said Thursday.

India has warned Sri Lanka of possible suicide bombings weeks before the attacks, based on “threatening” Daesh-influenced material seized from suspects in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, a source with knowledge of the investigation told AFP Thursday.

A major dispute has erupted in Sri Lanka over why security services did not act over the warnings. The Sri Lankan police chief issued an alert on April 11 but it did not reach a top minister.

Several warnings were made to Sri Lanka, all at least two weeks before the Easter Sunday attacks on three churches and three hotels in which 359 people died, the source said.

India’s evidence, which included videos, was initially seized in raids in 2018 in which seven men were detained in the city of Coimbatore, media reports said.

Earlier, an explosion occurred in a town east of Colombo also 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.

“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.

As mourners buried the remains of Christian worshippers killed by the Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks in Sri Lanka, 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 organized 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.”
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 neighborhoods around St. Sebastian’s Church.
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 El-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 kilometers 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.
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.” 


Priyanka standoff ends with visit to victims’ families

In this handout photo taken and released by the All India Congress Committee (AICC) Communication Department on July 19, 2019, Indian politician Priyanka Gandhi Vadra (2L) meets Sonbhadra massacre victims at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) Trauma Centre in Varanasi. (AFP)
Updated 21 July 2019

Priyanka standoff ends with visit to victims’ families

  • Priyanka Gandhi’s protest continued throughout Friday night while she demanded the right to visit the victims’ families

NEW DELHI: A political standoff over detained Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi ended on Saturday after she was allowed to meet relatives of 10 people killed in a caste clash in the eastern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
The Congress general secretary and sister of outgoing party president Rahul Gandhi was detained in Mirzapur on Friday while traveling to Sonbhadra to visit family members of 10 people shot and killed in a land dispute a day earlier.
The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Uttar Pradesh, led by Yogi Adityanath, detained Gandhi for violating the peace and stopped her from traveling further. The Congress leader then began a sit-in protest with her supporters at the Mirzapur guest house where she was held.
Her protest continued throughout Friday night while she demanded the right to visit the victims’ families. Television images showed Gandhi sitting in the dark after power and water supplies in the guest house were allegedly cut off by the local administration.
Her presence in the area, which also falls in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency in Varanasi, galvanized Congress workers who staged protests across the state.
Early on Saturday, relatives of some of the victims visited the guest house to meet the 47-year-old leader of the Gandhi-Nehru family, India’s pre-eminent political dynasty.
“My objective has been served as I have met the victims of the shooting,” said Gandhi before calling off her protest.
“The responsibility for the Sonbhadra massacre lies with the Yogi government,” she said.
Gandhi told her supporters, “I will be back,” before flying to New Delhi.
The BJP has accused the Congress leader of playing politics over the shootings.
“Congress has a history of playing politics over dead bodies,” said Swatantra Dev Singh, BJP president in Uttar Pradesh.
“The drama should stop. That is what I will say to Priyanka. All the accused have been arrested, and the officials responsible have been suspended,” he said.
The fatal shootings in Sonbhadra, 800 km southeast of New Delhi, drew mainstream media attention only when the Congress leader arrived in the state.
Observers say that the killing of 10 socially marginalized and landless tribes people by members of the dominant caste has highlighted the fragile caste situation in India’s most populous state.
The people of Gond tribe have been working the disputed land for generations. According to reports, the village head wanted tribes people to vacate the farm land. This led to conflict, and on Friday more than 200 armed men attacked the helpless villagers, killing 10 and injuring several others.
Gandhi, who entered politics only a few months before the general elections in May this year, seized the opportunity to connect with the people.
For the BJP, Uttar Pradesh is the jewel in the crown. The state gave the party 62 of its 303 parliamentary seats, and it is determined to maintain its political grip.
Political analysts say that Gandhi is determined to revive the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh by 2022 when the state goes to the polls.
“Priyanka Gandhi handled the Sonbhadra incident in a mature way, exposing the ham-fisted attitude of the Yogi government,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a New Delhi-based analyst and author.
“She also managed to expose the BJP’s class bias  and how the ruling party is protecting the interests of  dominant caste in the state,” said Mukhopadhyay.
“This incident gives the party a chance to go back to the people immediately after the huge loss in the elections,” Mukhopadhyay told Arab News.
Lucknow-based political analyst Ram Dutt Tripathi said that Gandhi has “shown her courage as a political leader willing to fight administrative injustice.”
“Her detention was illegal and the Congress has high hopes that she can lead the revival of the party,” said Tripathi.
“It is unfortunate that the state Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has not visited relatives of the victims so far and is putting restrictions on political opponents who want to stand with them,” he said.