Sri Lanka says Easter attack leader died in hotel bombing
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Sri Lanka says Easter attack leader died in hotel bombing

Mohamed Zahran, head of local terror group known for vitriolic extremist speeches on social media, was reportedly killed in one of 9 deadly attacks

Sri Lankan security personnel stand guard outside Mohideen Meththai Grand Jumma Mosque during the Friday noon prayer in Kattankudy on April 26, 2019, following a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka (Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP)
Sri Lankan security personnel stand guard outside Mohideen Meththai Grand Jumma Mosque during the Friday noon prayer in Kattankudy on April 26, 2019, following a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka (Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — The suspected leader of the terrorist group Sri Lankan authorities said carried out a series of Easter Sunday bombings died in the blast at the Shangri-La hotel, one of six hotels and churches targeted in the attacks that killed at least 250 people, officials said Friday.

Police said on an official Twitter account that Mohamed Zahran, the leader of local terror group National Towheed Jamaat known for his vitriolic extremist speeches on social media, had been killed in one of the nine suicide bombings.

Police also said they had arrested the group’s second-in-command.

They said investigators had determined that the assailants’ military training was provided by someone they called “Army Mohideen,” and that weapons training had taken place overseas and at some locations in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province.

Police also said that the attackers had worked out at a local gym and by playing soccer using their authentic national identity cards. They added that the vehicles used in the attack were purchased from a car dealership in Kadawatha, a suburb of Colombo, the capital.

Sri Lankan security personnel walk next to dead bodies on the floor amid blast debris at St. Anthony’s Shrine following an explosion in the church in Colombo on April 21, 2019. (Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)

They said that the operator of a copper factory who was arrested in connection with the bombings had helped Mohideen make improvised explosive devices and purchase empty cartridges sold by the Sri Lankan military as scrap copper.

Australia’s prime minister said earlier Friday that it had been confirmed that the Sri Lanka attackers were supported by the Islamic State group, which has claimed responsibility for the massacre, distributing video of Zahran and others pledging allegiance to the withered caliphate.

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena told reporters in Colombo that some 140 people in the island nation had been identified as having links to the Islamic State group, and that the Sri Lankan government has “the capability “to completely control ISIS activities” in the country.

“We will completely control this and create a free and peaceful environment for people to live,” he said.

Sirisena blamed Sri Lanka’s defense secretary, who resigned Thursday, and police chief, who he said would soon step down, for a failure to share weeks of information from international intelligence agencies about the plot ahead of time.

Across Colombo, there was a visible increase of security as authorities warned of another attack and pursued suspects that could have access to explosives. Authorities had told Muslims to pray at home rather than attend communal Friday prayers that are the most important religious service for the faithful. At one mosque in Colombo where prayers were still held, police armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles stood guard outside.

Security personnel stand guard outside a mosque during Friday noon prayer in Colombo on April 26, 2019, following a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka (Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)

Armed soldiers also stood guard outside St. Anthony’s Shrine, one of the three churches attacked on Easter.

Gration Fernando crossed himself when he looked at the church after walking out of his shop there. Fernando says he, like other Sri Lankans, was worried about further attacks.

There is “no security, no safety to go to church,” he said, adding that “now children are scared to go to church” as well.

Late on Thursday, Sri Lanka’s health ministry drastically revised down its estimated death toll from the coordinated attacks. A statement said “approximately” 253 people had died, nearly one-third lower than the police’s estimated death toll of 359.

“Many of the victims were badly mutilated… there was double counting,” the health ministry said in explaining the new death toll.

In a predominantly Muslim area of Colombo’s Maligawatta neighborhood, vegetable sellers laid their produce on the sidewalks near the mosques as women in long black chador shopped.

Leaders at the neighborhood mosques said they planned still to hold Friday noon prayers. They said both the police and volunteers would be guarding the neighborhood to protect the faithful.

Sri Lankan security personnel stand guard outside Mohideen Meththai Grand Jumma Mosque during the Friday noon prayer in Kattankudy on April 26, 2019, following a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka (Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP)
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