Sri Lanka death toll revised down to 253 as top defense official resigns

Sri Lanka death toll revised down to 253 as top defense official resigns

Some badly mutilated bodies had been counted twice, authorities say; security forces desperately hunt for suspects as alert level remains high

A Sri Lankan woman walks on a road leading to St. Anthony's Church, one of the sites of Easter Sunday's bomb attacks in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 25, 2019. (AP/Eranga Jayawardena)
A Sri Lankan woman walks on a road leading to St. Anthony's Church, one of the sites of Easter Sunday's bomb attacks in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 25, 2019. (AP/Eranga Jayawardena)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AFP) — Authorities in Sri Lanka on Thursday lowered the death toll in a spate of Easter bombings by more than 100 to 253, admitting some of the badly mutilated bodies had been erroneously double-counted.

The toll revision will boost the pressure on a government already under fire for its apparent failure to act on intelligence warning of the attacks, and follows the resignation of a top defense official.

The top bureaucrat in the island nation’s defense ministry, Hemasiri Fernando, was the first official to step down in the wake of the attacks — the worst since a civil war ended more than a decade ago.

“Many of the victims were badly mutilated… there was double counting,” the health ministry said in explaining the new death toll of 253, down from the 359 announced on Wednesday.

The ministry said that once all autopsies were completed, and cross-referenced with DNA samples, the new lower toll was reached.

Relatives throw flower petals on the coffin of Dhami Brandy, 13, a victim of Easter Sunday’s bomb blast at St. Sebastian Church, in Negombo, Sri Lanka, April 25, 2019. (AP/Manish Swarup)

The ministry did not offer a new breakdown of the tally in terms of locals and foreigners. Earlier, Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry had said 40 of the victims were foreign nationals.

Indian intelligence shared several specific warnings about plans for attacks with Sri Lankan authorities, an Indian source told AFP, but the information was not given to ministers, in what Colombo has called a “major” lapse.

Authorities are now in a desperate hunt for suspects linked to the bloodshed. On Thursday, police released the names and photos of three men and three women they want to question.

Tensions remained high, with the capital on alert over rumors of fresh bombs, but police said there had been no credible reports of explosive devices.

Sri Lanka’s Catholic church nonetheless suspended all public services and closed churches “on the advice of security forces.”

Private burials were still to be carried out.

Anusha Kumari, center, weeps during a mass burial April 24, 2019 in Negombo, Sri Lanka, for her husband, two children and three siblings, all victims of Easter Sunday’s bomb attacks. (AP/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

President Maithripala Sirisena met Thursday with political party leaders and announced he would revive a military-police body last used during the country’s fight against Tamil insurgents to coordinate operations after the bombings.

In the past, the joint operations command was headed by a senior military figure and included members of the military as well as police and intelligence.

Visa-free plan halted

Security forces using special powers granted under a state of emergency have arrested 16 more suspects, bringing the total in custody to 74.

The army, navy and air force poured more than 3,000 additional troops onto the streets to help police.

Authorities have banned drone flights and the government suspended plans to implement visa-free travel for tourists from 39 countries — including European Union nations, Australia and the United States — for six months from May 1.

Sri Lanka’s police chief warned on April 11 of possible suicide bombings against churches by local Islamist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), citing information from a foreign intelligence agency.

Nuns walk past military personnel standing guard at the St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, on April 23, 2019, two days after a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. (AFP/Ishara S. Kodikara)

India warned Sri Lanka several times of possible attacks, based on information from suspects arrested in India over links to the Islamic State group, a source close to the Indian investigation told AFP.

But that information was not shared with top ministers in Sri Lanka, the government has conceded.

“It was a major lapse in the sharing of information,” deputy defense minister Ruwan Wijewardene said Wednesday.

Sirisena, who is also defense and law and order minister, has pledged to make major changes in the leadership of the security forces.

Fernando was the first to go, telling Sirisena in a letter that he was “accepting responsibility and resigning,” a defense ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Additional resignations were expected.

Investigators are still piecing information together about the attacks and those involved, with officials revealing one attacker had studied in Britain and did post-graduate studies in Australia before returning to Sri Lanka.

Wijewardene said most of the assailants were “well-educated and come from middle, upper-middle class families, so they are financially quite independent.”

FBI investigating

Experts say the bombings had many of the hallmarks of the Islamic State group, which has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

An FBI team on the ground is helping with the investigation.

Among the suspects unaccounted for is NTJ leader Zahran Hashim, who appeared to be among eight people seen in a video released Tuesday by IS.

A photo published on the Islamic State terror group’s propaganda outlet, the Amaq agency, on April 23, 2019, showing what the group says is eight bombers who carried out the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka. (Amaq)

Officials said it was still unclear whether Hashim was among the suicide attackers or had escaped.

In all, nine people are believed to have blown themselves up on Sunday, either during attacks or when police attempted to arrest them.

Among them were two Muslim brothers, sons of a wealthy Colombo spice trader who is now in custody. The brothers blew themselves up at the Shangri-La and the Cinnamon Grand hotels.

The Kingsbury hotel in the capital was also hit, along with three churches. A fourth attack on a hotel failed, authorities said. The would-be attacker was followed back to a Colombo guest house, where he blew himself up, killing two people.

Two more people, a man and a woman, blew themselves up at another location as security forces launched a raid, killing three police, sources said.

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