COLOMBO • A gun battle between troops and suspected Islamist militants on Sri Lanka's east coast left 15 dead, including six children, a military spokesman said yesterday, six days after suicide bombers killed more than 250 people on the island.
The shoot-out at a safe house erupted on Friday in Sainthamaruthu in Ampara district, south of the town of Batticaloa, the site of one of the Easter Sunday blasts claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group.
The east coast battle broke out when troops heading towards a suspected militant safe house were repulsed by three explosions and gunfire, military spokesman Sumith Atapattu said.
"Troops retaliated and raided the safe house, where a large cache of explosives had been stored," he said in a statement.
The militants were suspected members of domestic Islamist group National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ), which has been blamed for last Sunday's attacks.
The wife and a daughter of Zaharan Hashim, the suspected mastermind of the Easter Sunday suicide attacks, were wounded in the gun battle, the police and his sister said yesterday.
WE'LL GET THEM ALL
We can and we will eradicate all of them very soon.
SRI LANKAN PRESIDENT MAITHRIPALA SIRISENA, on the crackdown against those with links to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
"Yes, the wife and daughter were injured in the attack," said Hashim's sister Mathaniya. "I was asked to come to identify them, but I am not sure I can go."
A police spokesman said three suspected suicide bombers were among the dead. A civilian was also killed in the crossfire during the night-time raid near the predominantly Muslim town, with hundreds of families later fleeing their homes. The operation followed a tip-off that people linked to the attacks were in the town, 370km east of the capital.
Bomb-making materials, dozens of gelignite sticks and thousands of ball bearings were found in a search of another house in the same area, along with ISIS banners and uniforms, the military said.
Police said on Friday they were trying to track down 140 people they believe have links with ISIS.
Sri Lanka's President said some Sri Lankan youth had been involved with ISIS since 2013 and that there were drug trafficking links. "We can and we will eradicate all of them very soon," said President Maithripala Sirisena.
He yesterday issued an order banning the NTJ, as well as another extremist group, Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim.
The authorities have warned that there could be more attacks against religious centres following the bombings, which shattered the relative calm in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka since a conflict with mostly-Hindu ethnic Tamil separatists ended a decade ago.
Security has been stepped up at churches and mosques across the nation. Amid fears of new attacks, the Roman Catholic Church has suspended all public services across the country until security is guaranteed by the government, with the archbishop appealing to Catholics to pray at home.
Some groups were expected to hold public vigils in Colombo and Negombo, where St Sebastian's Church suffered some of the worst casualties in the bombings.
The US State Department, warning that terrorist groups were continuing to plot attacks, urged citizens to reconsider travel to Sri Lanka and ordered the departure of all school-age family members of US government employees.
It also authorised non-emergency employees to leave.
Other nations, including Israel, Australia and Britain, have already warned against visiting Sri Lanka.
In a separate raid on a mosque in Colombo, a suspect was arrested and 40 swords and kris knives were seized from under the bed of the chief cleric, police said.
The military has deployed troops on the streets to back up police as they search for suspects using emergency powers.
The authorities said they have detained nearly 100 people, including foreigners from Syria and Egypt.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE