Hundreds of police officers swept through the Sri Lankan capital on Thursday, shutting down large parts of the city and looking urgently for six suspects – three men and three women – connected to the Easter Sunday attacks who might be planning a new wave of bloodshed.
The country’s defence secretary, Hemasiri Fernando, resigned after the President blamed him for failing to act on warnings of an impending assault. At least 10 days before the attack, the Sri Lankan government had detailed intelligence that Islamist extremists were plotting suicide bombings at churches.
Also on Thursday, Sri Lanka’s Health Ministry conceded that it had overstated the death toll from the bombings Sunday at three churches and three hotels, revising their estimate from at least 359 killed to at least 250. In a written statement, the ministry cited the difficulty in counting when so many of the victims’ bodies were not intact.
Police officials said they feared there were at least two people on the loose who had planned to be suicide bombers that day. Police said they had information that another attack was imminent, posted the suspects’ pictures on social media and urged anyone with information about them to call a hotline.
Security services also circulated a memo saying that the group that carried out the Easter attacks could be “specifically targeting Sufi shrines.”
Authorities in Sri Lanka have blamed a local extremist Islamist group, National Towheed Jamaat, for the bombings, and images posted online appear to show members of the group pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group, which has claimed responsibility for the attacks. The local group follows a fundamentalist form of Islam that believes Sufi Muslims, who adhere to a mystical school of Islam, are heretics.
Across Sri Lanka, Friday prayer for Muslims and Sunday services for Roman Catholics have been cancelled amid fears of large public gatherings. Tensions are rising and in some areas a violent backlash against the country’s Muslim minority has begun. The country’s devastating 26-year civil war, which ended in 2009, was fought along ethnic lines, not religious ones.
American agents from the FBI, the British intelligence service MI6, and Indian, Australian and Swiss security agencies have all joined the investigation into the attacks. Sri Lankan authorities said more than 70 people had been arrested.