Sri Lankan security forces have found 15 bodies, including six children, after militants linked to the Easter Sunday bombings on churches and hotels opened fire and set off explosives during a raid on their house in the country’s east.
The suspected safe house near the town of Sammanthurai contained an arsenal of explosives, which the militants detonated in three explosions as they opened fire on Sri Lankan soldiers in a raid on Friday night.
Police later told local media 15 people, including six children, died during the raid as three cornered suicide bombers blew themselves up and others were shot dead.
The gun-battle began on Friday night in one of a series of raids and curfews, shutting down areas of eastern Sri Lanka.
The military said security forces had recovered explosives, detonators, “suicide kits”, military uniforms and Islamic State group flags in ongoing raids.
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said officers acting on information in the same area from intelligence officials found 150 sticks of blasting gelatin and 100,000 small metal balls, as well as a van and clothing suspected to be used by those involved in the Easter attack.
Officials from the police to the prime minister say militants remain on the loose and have access to explosives.
The security threat remains extremely high across the island nation of 21 million, as Catholic leaders cancelled Sunday masses indefinitely and most mosques suspended Friday prayers in what has been described as an extraordinary call by the clergy to curtail worship amid fear of more attacks.
However, at one mosque in Colombo, police armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles stood guard outside for hundreds of worshippers as the imam inside and others wept while praying to Allah to help their country.
Meanwhile, fresh details about Abdul Latheef Mohamed Jameel have emerged – including friends’ claims that he was radicalised during four years he spent in Australia.
His target was the breakfast buffet at the Taj Samudra, a luxury hotel on Colombo’s seafront. Instead, he ended up detonating his explosive device in a budget motel by the city’s zoo, killing a couple who had arrived only half an hour earlier.
People who knew him said Jameel, like many of the bombers, was an educated family man who was radicalised abroad, though an attempt to reach Syria failed in 2014, according to a Sri Lankan intelligence source.
The US invasion of Iraq marked a major turning point in Jameel’s views, they said.
Jameel, 37, was born in Kandy, the sixth child in a tea trading family of seven whose relative wealth allowed him to travel and live abroad and study engineering at Kingston University, southwest of London, for a year in 2006, according to two sources close to the family.
He returned to Sri Lanka, where he married and had his first of four children, before moving to Australia for four years in 2009. It was during this time he became radicalised, said those who knew him.
“He was really angry with the US and its alliance’s attacks in Iraq during his stay in Australia,” a close friend told Reuters. “He was really radicalised and became an extremist when he was in Australia.
“He returned as a completely changed person.”
Cleaning crews on Saturday arrived at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, where broken glass still littered a blood-stained floor. They collected debris, tossing it into a truck parked outside as a heavy contingent of security forces stood guard.
Sri Lanka’s government, crippled from a long political crisis between the president and prime minister, promised swift action to capture militants still at large.
President Maithripala Sirisena said about 140 people had been identified as having links to the Islamic State group.
Earlier on Friday, police confirmed the militant group’s leader, Mohamed Zahran, died in the suicide bombing at the Shangri-La Hotel, one of six hotels and churches attacked.
Zahran appeared in an Islamic State video claiming responsibility for the coordinated assault, and authorities in both Sri Lanka and Australia confirmed links between IS and the attack.
On Thursday night, Sri Lanka’s Health Ministry drastically reduced its estimated death toll from the bombings.
A statement said “approximately” 253 people had been killed, nearly one-third lower than an earlier police estimate of 359 dead.