Sri Lanka’s security forces on Friday, April 26 raided the location where they believe militants recorded a video pledge to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before carrying out deadly Easter Sunday attacks.
The discovery in the town of Sammanthurai, around 210 km (130 miles) east of the capital Colombo, came as security forces continued to search for extremists responsible for the bombings.
Seven people were reportedly arrested in the raid that was conducted by police and army personnel.
Police found an ISIS flag which they said was used as a backdrop, as well as clothing similar to that worn by the eight people in the video recorded before they launched suicide bomb attacks against three luxury hotels and three churches within 20 minutes of each other on Sunday. Two blasts at a guesthouse and a house in came later in the day.
ISIS released the video via its Amaq propaganda agency two days after the attacks.
Sammanthurai is around 40 km south of Batticaloa, where at least 25 people were killed in a suicide bombing at the Zion church.
This is nuts.
— Amarnath Amarasingam (@AmarAmarasingam) April 26, 2019
Police showed the clothing and the flag on national television along with around 150 sticks of gelignite, 100,000 ball bearings, and a quadcopter drone. Video appeared to show a stack of 50 kg sacks of fertilizer, around a dozen large drums of liquid and a box of battery power units among other items seized.
— Roel Raymond (@kataclysmichaos) April 26, 2019
On Monday, police said they had found 87 detonators – 12 of them scattered on the ground at the Bastian Mawatha Private bus stand in Colombo and another 75 in a nearby garbage dump.
At least two militants shot dead in Kalmunai
Police and soldiers carried out a joint operation following a tip-off that militants connected to the Easter suicide bombings were holed up in a built up area, AFP reported.
Troops and a small group of militants exchanged fire for over an hour, military spokesperson Brigadier Sumith Atapattu said, adding that there were no fatalities among troops, but the area was still not cleared.
Atapattu later said militants opened fire on troops when they attempted to storm a safe house.
“In our retaliatory fire, two gunmen were killed,” Atapattu said, adding that a civilian caught in the crossfire was also killed.
Police later said clearing operations on Saturday showed a total of four militants had died during the overnight confrontation.
“We found four bodies of suspected suicide bombers,” the police statement said, also confirming one civilian was killed in the crossfire and three others were injured.
NTJ leader Zahran Hashim likely killed in hotel suicide attack
Earlier on Friday, President Maithripala Sirisena said Zahran Hashim, the leader of a local extremist group, was one of two attackers killed at one of the Colombo hotels hit on Sunday.
“What intelligence agencies have told me is that Zahran was killed during the Shangri-La attack,” he said.
Hashim was accompanied by a second bomber identified as Ilham Ibrahim in the attack, the president said.
Ilham and his brother Inshaf Ahmed Ibrahim attacked the Shangri-La and Cinnamon Grand hotels and Inshaf Ibrahim’s wife Fatima was killed in an explosion the family home on Sunday, Firstpost reported.
An intelligence source told The Times that Abdul Lathief Jameel Mohamed is believed to have targeted the Taj Samudra hotel – located between the Shangri-La and the Cinnamon Grand – but his suicide vest failed to detonate. He later detonated the device at a guesthouse near the zoo.
Authorities had been searching for Hashim after naming his little-known group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath, as perpetrators of the attack.
DNA tests are being carried out on a severed head to conclusively establish that it is of Hashim’s, officials said, adding they believe the tests will prove positive.
Hashim was the only person whose face was not covered in the video released by ISIS after it claimed the attacks.
Resignations, recriminations and arrests
With the country on the defensive over ignored foreign warnings that attacks were likely, police chief Pujith Jayasundara on Friday became the second major resignation, after Sri Lanka’s top defence ministry official Hemasiri Fernando stepped down late Thursday.
Sirisena had called on both to leave their posts because of the recriminations over the government’s failure to prevent the attacks despite the warnings from India that NTJ suicide bombers were likely to hit “prominent churches.”
Late on Friday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe apologised.
“We take collective responsibility and apologise to our fellow citizens for our failure to protect victims of these tragic events,” Wickremesinghe tweeted.
The military poured troops onto the streets to bolster police in the search for suspects using newly granted powers under a state of emergency.
At least 74 people are in custody, including a man believed to be millionaire spice-trader Mohammed Yusuf Ibrahim, the father of two of the bombers.
“We now have info that there are about 140 people in Sri Lanka linked to the Islamic State, we can and we will eradicate all of them very soon,” Sirisena said, announcing that there would also be new legislation to ban extremist groups.
On Thursday, authorities reduced the death toll from 360 dead to 253, saying that 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.
Health Ministry director general Anil Jasinghe said the “very complex nature of the human remains” had made it hard for forensic experts to initially compile an accurate toll. He said staff had carried out a “grim task”.
With reporting from AFP. This post was updated on April 27.