Sri Lanka in state of emergency as terror group named as attackers

A woman prays at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo on April 22, 2019, a day after the building was hit as part of a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. (AFP)
Updated 23 April 2019

Sri Lanka in state of emergency as terror group named as attackers

  • National terror group linked to the attacks, international influence not ruled out
  • Sri Lankan police find 87 detonators at a bus stand in Colombo

COLOMBO: The Easter Sunday bomb attacks in Sri Lanka were carried out by Sri Lankan nationals with the help of an international network, cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said on Monday.
“We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country,” Senaratne said. “There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.”

But Senaratne told journalists at a news conference Monday that all seven bombers were Sri Lankan citizens and members of the National Thowheeth Jamath (NTJ) terror group.

 

In ongoing operations Sri Lankan police found 87 bomb detonators at Colombo’s main bus stand on Monday, a police spokesman said.

An explosion also went off on Monday in a van near a church in Sri Lanka where scores were killed the previous day, when bomb squad officials were trying to defuse it, a Reuters witness said. No injuries have been reported.

The devastating attacks on churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka killed 290 people and wounded more than 500, a senior investigator said on Monday.
Two of the suicide bombers blew themselves up at the luxury Shangri-La Hotel on Colombo's seafront, said Ariyananda Welianga, a senior official at the government’s forensic division. The others targeted three churches and two other hotels.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan authorities have announced that another curfew will be introduced today from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. and the Sri Lankan President, Maithripala Sirisena announced that from midnight he will declare a nationwide state of emergency.

The announcement came as authorities lifted the original curfew in Sri Lanka on Monday, and there were warnings more attacks were possible.
There was still no claim of responsibility for the Easter Sunday attacks on two churches and four hotels in and around Colombo, the capital of predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka, and a third church on the South Asian nation’s northeast coast.
A government source said President Maithripala Sirisena, who was abroad when the attacks happened, had called a meeting of the National Security Council early on Monday. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would attend the meeting, the source said.
Sri Lankan military who were clearing the route from Colombo airport late on Sunday in preparation for Sirisena’s return found a homemade bomb near the departure gate, an air force spokesman said.
They disposed of the device in a controlled explosion, the spokesman said.
There were fears the attacks could spark a renewal of communal violence, with police also reporting late on Sunday there had been a petrol bomb attack on a mosque in the northwest and arson attacks on two shops owned by Muslims in the west.
Sri Lanka was at war for decades with Tamil separatists but extremist violence had been on the wane since the civil war ended 10 years ago.
The South Asian nation of about 22 million people has Christian, Muslim and Hindu populations of between about eight and 12 percent.
The US State Department issued a revised travel warning that said “terrorist groups” were continuing to plot possible attacks.
“Terrorists may attack with little or no warning,” it said in the revised warning, which was dated Sunday US time. The warning level was set at two on a scale where four means do not travel.
Possible targets included tourist locations, transportation hubs, shopping malls, hotels, places of worship, airports and other public areas, it said.


Armed guards
The island-wide curfew imposed by the government was lifted early on Monday, although there was uncharacteristically thin traffic in the normally bustling capital.
Soldiers armed with automatic weapons stood guard outside major hotels and the World Trade Center in the business district, where the four hotels were targeted on Sunday, according to a Reuters witness.
Scores of people who were stranded overnight at the main airport began making their way home as restrictions were lifted.
The government also blocked access to social media and messaging sites, including Facebook and WhatsApp, making information hard to gather.
Wickremsinghe acknowledged on Sunday that the government had some prior information about possible attacks on churches involving a little-known Islamist group but said ministers had not been told.
Sri Lankans accounted for the bulk of the 290 people killed and 500 wounded, although government officials said 32 foreigners were also killed. These included British, US, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals.
A British mother and son eating breakfast at the luxury Shangri-La hotel were among those killed, Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper reported.
One Australian survivor, identified only as Sam, told Australia’s 3AW radio the hotel was a scene of “absolute carnage.”
He said he and a travel partner were also having breakfast at the Shangri-La when two blasts went off. He said he had seen two men wearing backpacks seconds before the blasts.
“There were people screaming and dead bodies all around,” he said. “Kids crying, kids on the ground, I don’t know if they were dead or not, just crazy.”
There were similar scenes of carnage at two churches in or near Colombo, and a third church in the northeast town of Batticaloa, where worshippers had gathered for Easter Sunday services. Pictures from the scene showed bodies on the ground and blood-spattered pews and statues.
Dozens were killed in one of the blasts at the Gothic-style St. Sebastian church in Katuwapitiya, north of Colombo. Police said they suspected that blast was a suicide attack.
Three police officers were also killed when security forces raided a house in Colombo several hours after the attacks.
Police reported an explosion at the house.

Decoder

What is the National Thowheed Jamath?

The National Thowheed Jamath is a radical Muslim group that appeared after the Sri Lankan civil war ended in 2009, and has been linked to the vandalism of Buddhist statues. It preaches extremism, strict interpretations of religious texts, and intolerance of non-Muslims. The group demands the compulsory veiling of Muslim women. NTJ built mosques and madrassas in various parts of the country. Extremism expert Anne Speckhard told the NYT that the group aims to spread hatred, fear and division among the local society.


UN chief pushes for concerted efforts to defeat polio

Updated 19 February 2020

UN chief pushes for concerted efforts to defeat polio

  • Pakistan is one of just two countries in the world, besides Afghanistan, where cases of polio are still prevalent

LAHORE: UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated the need for unified efforts to effectively eradicate polio from Pakistan, adding that the world needed to “join hands” to fight the menace.

“Together, we can eliminate polio from across the world, and I appeal to all the world leaders to join hands to fight out polio,” Guterres said in comments to the media on Tuesday after participating in an anti-polio drive at a private school in Lahore, the capital of the Punjab province.

The UN chief was accompanied by Punjab Health Minister Dr. Yasmeen Rashed, and a coterie of other officials. “He appreciated the federal and provincial governments’ efforts to curb this menace,” Dr. Rashed told Arab News.

Pakistan is one of just two countries in the world, besides Afghanistan, where cases of polio are still prevalent. Guterres said that eradicating polio from the world map was the UN’s first priority, before commending the government and frontline workers for ensuring that Pakistan was now a “safer country as compared to the past.”

“I express solidarity with the workers who laid their lives in the line of duty,” the UN chief said, paying homage to officials who were targeted and killed, following rumors that the immunization programs were harmful for children.

However, by hiring local workers who speak the same language and understand the nuances involved, the campaign has seen better acceptance.

According to the World Health Organization, the number of registered cases of polio stood at 20,000 a year in the early 1990s. That number has dropped down to seven reported cases from various provinces thus far in 2020.

For this year’s drive, more than 265,000 workers have been roped in for a door-to-door, nationwide campaign to ensure no child remains uninoculated.

FASTFACT

Guterres said that eradicating polio was the UN’s first priority, before commending the workers for ensuring that Pakistan was now a ‘safer country as compared to the past.’

The five-day initiative, which began on Monday, seeks to vaccinate 39.6 million children under the age of five years.

“It is the second day of the campaign and we are committed to make it a success. Nearly 95,000 polio workers are on the field, going to every house where a child below the age of five years resides,” Hanif Pitafi, Advisor to Punjab Chief Minister on Health, told Arab News.

The Punjab government, for its part, has issued directives to district deputy commissioners to monitor the process at various locations.

“We will leave no stone unturned to save the future of our children...We will achieve our target,” he added.

After participating in the polio drive, Guterres headed to the Kartarpur Corridor, a visa-free initiative launched by Pakistan which allows Sikhs from India and around the world to visit the final resting place of Guru Nanak who founded Sikhism five centuries ago.

“This is the best symbol that we can give for a world in peace and for a world (where) there is mutual respect and acceptance of what is different,” the UN Chief said on Tuesday.

Inaugurated by Prime Minister Imran Khan last year, the four-kilometer Kartarpur Corridor connects the Sikh shrine of Dera Baba Nanak Sahib in India’s Punjab region to the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, Pakistan. Some 5,000 Indian Sikhs are allowed entry on a daily basis.

“Recognizing the diversity is a blessing, is a richness of a threat which we see in so many parts of the world fighting in the name of religion. It is necessary to say that religions unite us for peace and the best symbol is this shrine,” Guterres said, adding that his visit was “to pay tribute to the contribution of the Sikh community all over the world”.

The UN Chief arrived in Islamabad on Sunday as part of his four-day visit to the country to attend an international conference on Afghan refugees.

The event is being hosted by Pakistan to mark four decades since displacements began from neighboring Afghanistan, by residents seeking to escape a deadly conflict.