The Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka that killed 321 people and wounded 500 in coordinated attacks on Christian churches and hotels, Reuters reported. The terror group made the claim through its AMAQ news agency after Sri Lanka’s government had blamed the blasts on local Islamist group National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ). The Indian Ocean island of 22 million people has a Buddhist-majority and minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus.
The country’s prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said the government believed Sunday’s attacks could not have been carried out without links to terror groups abroad.
“This could not have been done just locally,” he said. “There had been training given and a coordination which we are not seeing earlier.”
Wickremesinghe told reporters at a news conference Tuesday that investigators are making progress in identifying the perpetrators. At least seven suicide bombers were involved in the attacks, according to authorities. According to the U.N. Children’s Fund, 45 children were among the dead.
Surveillance footage captured one of the bombers patting a little girl on the head before he entered St. Sebastian Church in Negombo on Sunday. More than 100 parishioners were killed in the blast.
Chilling CCTV footage captured one of the bombers patted a little girl on the head moments before walking into St Sebastian's Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, before detonating a device pic.twitter.com/fLgPx3dExu
— Darlington Micah (@DarlingtonMicah) April 23, 2019
“We will be following up on IS claims, we believe there may be some links,” the prime minister said. Police have detained 40 Sri Lankan nationals in connection with the attack, according to Reuters.
Junior minister for defense Ruwan Wijewardene said officials believe the Easter bombings were in retaliation for March 15 attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
“The initial investigation has revealed that this was in retaliation for the New Zealand mosque attack,” he said at the Sri Lankan parliament in Colombo on Tuesday. Wijewardene called for a ban on terrorist organizations in the country.
— Ruwan Wijewardene (@RWijewardene) April 23, 2019
“As we all are aware by this time, three churches and four hotels where the main targets of this attack. They wanted to kill more people and create a major disaster in this country. It was a well planned operation. This is clearly the response of the Islamist organizations for the attack in Christchurch, New Zealand,” said Wijewardene.
“Investigations have been launched on Tawheed Jamaat and the JMI groups, which have a close connection with each other. These organizations need to be banned and those members of such organizations had to be brought before the law. Not only these, but other such organisations which are present in Sri Lanka also have to be brought in front of law,” he added.
Wijewardene did not explain why authorities believed there was a link to the New Zealand attacks, which were carried out by a suspected National Bolshevik.
According to Reuters, “pressure is likely to mount on the government over why effective action had not been taken in response to warnings from India about a possible attack on churches by the little-known National Thawheed Jama’ut group.”
Indian intelligence officers contacted their Sri Lankan counterparts two hours before the first attack to warn of a specific threat on churches, one Sri Lankan defense source and an Indian government source said.
Another Sri Lankan defense source said a warning came “hours before” the first strike. Sri Lanka’s presidency and the Indian foreign ministry both did not respond to requests for comment on the warnings. A government minister had said on Monday that Wickremesinghe had not been informed about a warning and had been shut out of top security meetings because of a feud with President Maithripala Sirisena.
Wickremesing dismissed any suggestion that the rift with the president had hampered coordination on security, saying although they had differences they had been thrashed out. Sirisena fired Wickremesinghe last year only to be forced to reinstate him under pressure from the Supreme Court.
More than 1,000 mourners gathered for a funeral Mass at St. Sebastian church in Negombo, just north of the capital, Colombo.
A mass funeral today at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, where as many as 100 people were killed https://t.co/e5zN0pPhT0
— Mikko Takkunen (@photojournalism) April 23, 2019
The ceremony began with prayers and singing under a tent put up in the courtyard of the church, which had most of its roof torn away by the blast.
Pall-bearers wearing white carried in wooden coffins one by one, followed by distraught relatives.
Pictured: relatives mourning beside the coffin of one of the suicide bomb victims at St Sebastian's Church in Negombo pic.twitter.com/Zz3FioLIdN
— Darlington Micah (@DarlingtonMicah) April 23, 2019
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Sri Lanka who led the service, urged other churches to delay memorials amid fears that more bombers may be at large.
Security forces were on alert for more attack and the government imposed emergency rule giving police extensive powers to detain and interrogate suspects. An overnight curfew has also been in place since Sunday.
A state of emergency remains in effect in Sri Lanka to prevent further attacks.
(Photo by Chamila Karunarathne/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)