Police have arrested another 16 people in connection to a series of bombings in Sri Lanka over Easter weekend which claimed at least 359 lives, officials said on Thursday.
Fresh security measures, including a ban on the use of drones, were introduced as police and security forces continued in their efforts to crack down on the network of people involved in the bombings.
The latest arrests brought the number of suspects in detention up to 76.
Vehicles used by the suspects have also been seized in the operations.
Teams from the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and from international police organisation Interpol were in the country assisting local investigators.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) also banned the use of drones and unmanned aircraft within Sri Lankan airspace until further notice.
Tight security was maintained around hotels, places of worship and government buildings with authorities carrying out random checks on cars and passenger buses.
On Wednesday, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena directed two top officials to step down amid allegations they failed to share intelligence reports with him about possible suicide attacks which were available to officials earlier in March.
Sirisena claimed that Defence Secretary, Hemasiri Fernando and Inspector-General of Police, Pujith Jayasundara also failed to inform Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe and his cabinet.
The country has been under a state of emergency since late on Monday.
Meanwhile, all of Sri Lanka’s Catholic churches have been ordered to stay closed and suspend services until security improves after deadly Easter bombings, a senior priest told AFP on Thursday.
“On the advice of the security forces we are keeping all churches closed,” the priest said.
“There will be no public mass said until further notice.
Sri Lanka police on Wednesday said investigations confirm there were nine suicide bombers, of whom eight have been identified.
One of the nine bombers was a woman, deputy defence minister Ruwan Wijewardene told reporters on Wednesday.
More than 100 people have now been arrested in the country in connection with Easter Sunday blasts, Wijewardene said.
In a report TRT WORLD reports on the swelling anger in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks
It reports that Sri Lanka’s government acknowledged “major” lapses over its failure to prevent the horrific Easter attacks that killed more than 350 people, despite prior intelligence warnings.
When a string of powerful bomb blasts tore through churches and luxury hotels across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, killing at least 326 people, the island was in shock and confusion. Over the next few days, this gave way to anger and indignation – not just at the terror group responsible but at the government.
Indian intelligence as early as April 4 had notified Sri Lankan authorities that the National Thowheeth Jamaat (NTJ) was planning attacks on churches and the Indian High Commission. A memo sent out to police officials, dated April 11, released in the wake of the attack suggested that police had been warned about a possible suicide attack on churches by the little-known domestic NTJ.
The memo detailed who the suspects were along with some of their movements, where they were in hiding and instructed “all personnel to pay strict heed to this report”.
It was not immediately clear what action, if any, was taken in response to the tip-off.
But Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had not been told of the report that said a foreign intelligence agency had warned of attacks on churches by NTJ, Sri Lanka’s Health Minister Rajith Senaratne told reporters.
Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena said he was not aware of the report and added that he expects to change the heads of the defence forces in the next 24 hours. Sirisena has set up a committee to oversee how the attacks were carried out and when the information was initially disseminated.
The top security organisation, the Security Council, reports to Sirisena, while the prime minister was no longer invited to council meetings because of the rift, Senaratne said.
On Monday, Sri Lanka’s health minister held up a copy of the intelligence report while describing its contents, spurring questions about what Sri Lanka’s police had done to protect the public from an attack.
Sri Lanka’s Deputy Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene also blamed “weakness” within Sri Lanka’s security apparatus for failing to prevent the nine bombings.
“By now it has been established that the intelligence units were aware of this attack and a group of responsible people were informed about the impending attack,” Wijewardene said. “However, this information has been circulated among only a few officials.”
The lack of communication between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe brought into scrutiny the rift between the two offices – one that sparked a crisis last year.
At Sri Lanka’s first parliamentary session since the attacks on Tuesday, anger peaked. While relatives buried their loved ones in a mass funeral, parliament descended into a blame game that some said was an attempt to score political points.
The attacks have left a mark on a country that emerged from a 26-year-long bloody civil war in 2009, throwing into light the adequacy of security organisations in combatting a new type of home-grown terrorism which appears to have links to international networks. It also brings into question whether the government has been doing enough to assuage the fears of Muslims who have been on the receiving end of violence from hardline Buddhist nationalist groups.
National Thowheeth Jamaat’s leader, alternately known as Mohammed Zahran or Zahran Hashmi, became known to Muslim leaders three years ago for his incendiary speeches online.
Zahran’s name was on one intelligence warning shared among Sri Lankan security forces, who apparently even quietly took their growing concerns to international experts as well.
Anne Speckhard, the director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, said a Sri Lankan intelligence official approached her at a conference in February with a surprising question. She was worried about what she described as a violent, homegrown radical group that “would just disappear” when the government tried to crack down on them.
“The intel person kind of came up to me and said, ‘You know, we’re kind of worried about this new group and there’s some activity going. What do you think?'” Speckhard told the Associated Press on Tuesday. “It just kind of blows my mind that’s who it was.”
Security in Sri Lanka has now stepped up. Near the international airport outside the capital, security personnel walked explosive-sniffing dogs and checked car trunks and questioned drivers on roads nearby. Police also ordered that anyone leaving a parked car unattended on the street must put a note with their phone number on the windscreen, and post offices were not accepting pre-wrapped parcels
For detailed coverage, including videos of attacks: www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6955605/amp/First-pictures-Sri-Lankas-middle-class-suicide-bomber-brothers-murdered-innocents.html