Sri Lanka president demands top security officials resign in wake of Easter bombings

President Maithripala Sirisena demanded the resignations of two top security officials Wednesday as new details emerged about the nine suicide bombers who carried out devastating attacks that killed 359 people on Easter Sunday.

Sirisena asked Pujith Jayasundara, the country’s police chief, and Hemasiri Fernando, the defense secretary, to step down amid a growing furor surrounding the government’s failure to act on intelligence warning of possible attacks on churches by an obscure Islamist extremist group.

The defense secretary is the top civil servant at the Defense Ministry, while the president himself holds the title of defense minister.

Parliament also passed on Wednesday emergency regulations granting security forces extraordinary powers to detain and question suspects and imposed a 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew for the fourth day in a row.

Nine suicide bombers, including a married couple, carried out the attack, authorities said. Eight of those attackers have been identified, said police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera. The group included two brothers and a woman, who killed three police officers and herself on Sunday when she detonated explosives as police closed in on a house in the capital, Colombo.

Ruwan Wijewardene, the state minister for defense, told reporters that the bombers used two safe houses in Negombo and south of Colombo. They came from middle-class and upper-class backgrounds, he said, and some were “quite well-educated people.” One of them had studied in Britain and Australia.Sixty people have been arrested in connection with the attacks on churches and hotels, including Mohamed Ibrahim, a wealthy businessman who traded spices and owned the home in Colombo’s Dematagoda neighborhood where the police conducted a raid on Sunday.Two of his sons were suicide bombers, and it was his daughter-in-law who triggered explosives when police officers came to the house.

Wijewardene said the bombers had split from the National Thowheed Jamaath, an obscure Islamist extremist group based in the eastern part of the country. The leader of the splinter group, a man known as Zaharn Hashim, carried out the suicide attack on Colombo’s Shangri-La hotel.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attacks, but Sri Lankan authorities said its role remains unclear. Wijewardene said there was a connection to the Islamic State “through ideology and maybe funding,” but the latter is still under investigation.

In comments to reporters, the U.S. ambassador agreed that some degree of foreign assistance was likely.“If you look at the scale of the attacks, the level of coordination, the sophistication of them, it’s not implausible to think there are foreign linkages,” said Alaina Teplitz.

Wijewardene said Sri Lanka’s intelligence agencies assessed that deadly attacks last month on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, “motivated these people to carry it out on Easter Sunday.” He declined to provide any further details on how that assessment was reached.

Sri Lankan authorities released CCTV video showing a suspected suicide bomber entering St Sebastian’s church in Negombo on April 21, moments before the blast.

A top police official warned in an April 11 intelligence report that a radical group could be plotting suicide attacks on popular churches in Sri Lanka. The report named the National Thowheed Jamaath and Hashim.

Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council, said his organization alerted intelligence officials three times that Hashim was inciting hatred through online sermons, most recently in February of this year. Ahamed said that Hashim was believed to be in his 40s.

Police also revealed how efforts by pastors at the Zion Church in the coastal city of Batticaloa saved lives. The bomber had originally targeted St. Mary’s Cathedral there but left when he realized Mass was over, according to the senior police superintendent of Batticaloa, Nuwan Mendi.

Instead the bomber, carrying a backpack and another bag, headed for the nearby Zion Church and attempted to enter the congregation area where some 500 people were gathered. He was stopped by pastors who were suspicious of him and ended up detonating his explosives in the courtyard, where some children were eating breakfast, killing at least 28 people.

The country remained on edge on Wednesday, and authorities carried out controlled explosions on motorbikes in downtown Colombo and the neighborhoods of Maradama and Pettah, as well as on a package deemed suspicious near a restaurant in the town of Katana.

Wijewardene urged residents to remain vigilant and said further arrests would take place.

“Within a couple of days, we can have total control of this situation,” he said.

Police officers and soldiers guard St Anthony’s Church in Colombo, Sri Lanka, days after attacks that killed scores of people. (Asanka Brendon Ratnayake for The Washington Post)

Harshana Thushara Silva in Colombo and Niha Masih in New Delhi contributed to this report.

Washington Post