Sri Lanka’s President Vows a Search of Every Home, as Violence Erupts Again

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka will conduct a house-to-house search of the entire country to root out terrorists in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings, the president said on Friday, even as fresh violence and a massive hunt for people linked to the attack continued to shake the country.

Seeking to deflect blame for the government’s failure to act on warnings that suicide bombings were imminent, President Maithripala Sirisena said that officials had not told him of the threat, and vowed a “total reorganization” of Sri Lanka’s security apparatus.

“Every household in the country will be checked,” Mr. Sirisena said in a meeting at his official residence with the heads of Sri Lankan media organizations, according to a statement released by his office. “The lists of permanent residents of every house will be established to ensure no unknown persons could live anywhere.”

In a nation of 21 million people — about the same population as Florida — that would require an enormous effort. The security services, with help from the intelligence agencies and several other countries, continued to search for people linked to the bombings, which they say were committed by a radical Islamist group tied to the Islamic State, or ISIS.

Mr. Sirisena vowed to take action against anyone who had failed to prevent the attack, putting particular blame on two officials: the defense secretary, Hemasiri Fernando, who resigned on Thursday, and the inspector general of the police, Pujith Jayasundara, who stepped down on Friday.

“They did not say a word about this warning letter,” Mr. Sirisena said. “It was a serious lapse on their part and shirk of responsibility.”

The Sri Lankan government has been consumed by months of infighting, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, a rival of the president, has complained that he was excluded from security meetings.

Government officials have conceded that several of the bombers had recently been arrested and then released, and that the security services had tracked a number of Sri Lankan Muslims who had lived abroad and were believed to have developed ties to radical groups. Pressed on why such people had been allowed into the country, the prime minister protested on Friday that no law prevented them from returning home.

But after days of finger-pointing, Mr. Wickremesinghe also apologized in an address to the nation on Friday.

“As the prime minister of Sri Lanka, I accept collective government responsibility for the failure to protect people from these attacks. As a government, I extend my sincerest apology to all citizens for our failures,” he said. “I hold myself accountable. And I am committed to ensuring these failures will never happen again.”

[ISIS reminded the world that it does not need to control territory to be a major threat.]

A local Islamist extremist group is said to have carried out the bombings, and some people linked to the plot are still at large, officials said. Images posted online appear to show the Sri Lankans pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for the attacks, though its exact role is not clear.

Mr. Sirisena said that security forces were making widespread arrests, and that more than 70 people had been held so far. He said he believed there were as many as 140 supporters of the Islamic State in Sri Lanka, according to news reports on his meeting.

Sunday Masses at Sri Lanka’s Roman Catholic churches are suspended until further notice, the archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Ranjith, said Friday. Many mosques were not holding Friday prayers.

Hundreds of police officers scoured the capital on Thursday looking for three men and three women who are believed to be connected to the bombers and possibly planning new attacks. One suicide bomber tried to strike a hotel on Sunday but could not make his explosive detonate — then blew himself up a short time later, probably while trying to fix it.

A growing number of foreign governments have warned their citizens about increased risks in Sri Lanka. On Friday, Britain advised “against all but essential travel to Sri Lanka.” Thailand warned its citizens to avoid religious centers from Friday though Sunday.

In his comments on Friday, Mr. Sirisena cast blame widely, saying his campaign against illegal drugs might have been a factor in the attacks because of the connections between drug gangs and terrorism. Thus far, no evidence has emerged of connections between the local extremist group believed to have carried out the bombings — National Thowheeth Jama’ath — and illegal drugs.

Mr. Sirisena also said that Zaharan Hashim, the head of National Thowheeth Jama’ath, is believed to have died while carrying out the bombing of the Shangri-La Hotel. Mr. Zaharan appeared in a video with seven masked men declaring allegiance to the Islamic State.

In a dig at Mr. Wickremesinghe, the prime minister, the president said the intelligence failures may have occurred partly because the security agencies had been weakened by the prosecution of military intelligence officers for human rights abuses committed during the civil war, which ended in 2009.

Mr. Sirisena has cast himself as a protector of the security apparatus, and accused his opponents of undermining the country’s national defense. He added that his support of the armed forces was one of the reasons for his rift with the prime minister and his cabinet, according to News First, a Sri Lankan news outlet.

It reported the president as saying that he had felt compelled to send top intelligence officers overseas to protect them from harassment.


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