Asia-Pacific

Fears of further terror attacks as Sri Lanka revises death toll down by more than 100

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Sri Lankan authorities blamed a calculation error as they revised down the death toll from Sunday's blasts by more than 100.

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 over its apparent failure to act on intelligence about the attacks, and follows the resignation of a top defence official.

The top bureaucrat in the island nation's defence 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.

A woman grieves at the grave after a funeral for a person killed in the Easter Sunday attack on St. Sebastian's Church on April 25, 2019 in Negombo, Sri Lanka (AAP)

"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 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.

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.

Friends of Dhami Brandy, 13, who was killed during Easter Sunday's bomb blast at St. Sebastian Church, cries during funeral service in Negombo, Sri Lanka Thursday, April 25, 2019 (AAP)

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 rumours 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.

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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.

Fears of further attacks

Britain has joined the US and Australia in warning against travelling to Sri Lanka unless it is absolutely necessary and urging caution to those already in the republic.

Australia updated its travel advice on Thursday to warn tourists there could be further terror attacks on the island following the Easter bombings. Travellers have been told to "reconsider your need to travel".

At least 38 foreigners were killed, four of them Australian citizens or permanent residents, many of them tourists sitting down to breakfast at top-end hotels when the bombers struck.

Eight British people were among the victims of the bombings.

 Sri Lankan security personnel check vehicles and bags in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan security personnel check vehicles and bags in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
AP

The UK on Thursday also warned terrorists were likely to try to carry out further attacks in Sri Lanka. The British Foreign Office said future attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners.

"Following the horrific attacks on Easter Sunday, and the ongoing Sri Lankan security operation, I have ... decided to update the travel advice to British nationals to Sri Lanka to advise against all but essential travel," Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said.

"We will keep this decision under close and constant review." In its updated travel advice it added: "Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Sri Lanka."

The Foreign Office advised any Britons in Sri Lanka to follow the advice of local security authorities, to keep a low profile and avoid crowded public places, and to avoid travelling during periods of curfew.

Earlier, the US embassy in Sri Lanka warned that places of worship could be targeted for militant attacks over the coming weekend. The US warning, issued on Twitter, was strikingly specific.

Sri Lanka has warned of more possible attacks as police remain on high alert.
Sri Lanka has warned of more possible attacks as police remain on high alert.

"Sri Lankan authorities are reporting that additional attacks may occur targeting places of worship," the tweet said. "Avoid these areas over the weekend, starting tomorrow."

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.

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 defence minister Ruwan Wijewardene said Wednesday.

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

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Fernando was the first to go, telling Sirisena in a letter that he was "accepting responsibility and resigning," a defence 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.

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.

A victim of the Easter Sunday attacks (AAP)

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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