From quiet Sri Lankan district to battle zone

A week after the Sri Lanka bombings on Easter Sunday, some are questioning whether political rifts led to security lapses.
Above: Residents of the town of Sainthamaruthu waiting at a nearby school on Saturday morning while the town was put under curfew. Left: Soldiers outside the suspected militant safe house, where at least 15 people were killed in bomb blasts and gunfi
Residents of the town of Sainthamaruthu waiting at a nearby school on Saturday morning while the town was put under curfew.PHOTO: ASANKA BRENDON RATNAYAKE FOR WASHINGTON POST
Above: Residents of the town of Sainthamaruthu waiting at a nearby school on Saturday morning while the town was put under curfew. Left: Soldiers outside the suspected militant safe house, where at least 15 people were killed in bomb blasts and gunfi
Soldiers outside the suspected militant safe house, where at least 15 people were killed in bomb blasts and gunfire. Two survivors, a woman and a toddler, were found inside.PHOTO: ASANKA BRENDON RATNAYAKE FOR WASHINGTON POST

Even before Friday's shoot-out at the militant safe house, locals had been suspicious about their new neighbours

SAINTHAMARUTHU (Sri Lanka) • They arrived a day or two after the Easter Sunday bombings and moved into a low-slung house behind a high wall and black metal gate, unloading boxes from a grey minivan.

But neighbours in the seaside town of Sainthamaruthu soon began to suspect that something was not right. A group of residents finally asked the new arrivals - men, women and children - to leave town.

Within hours, the quiet lane was turned into a war zone.

Last Friday, at least 15 people, including six children, were killed in bomb blasts and gunfire as Sri Lankan security forces closed in on the house.

Police believe the fiery explosions were triggered deliberately - the final violent acts of a group whose hideout had bomb-making items and black backpacks.

Their preparations pointed to possible plans for the next steps in a campaign of terror that began on Easter Sunday with bombings at churches and hotels that claimed more than 250 lives.

Police and a relative said yesterday that the father and two brothers of Zaharan Hashim, the suspected mastermind of the Easter Sunday bombings, were among those killed when security forces stormed the safe house.

 
 
 

Zainee Hashim, Rilwan Hashim and their father, Mohamed Hashim, had previously appeared in a video on social media calling for all-out war against non-believers.

The confrontation on Sri Lanka's eastern shore - on the other side of the island from the capital Colombo - began when Mr Imam Lateef, 54, vice-chairman of nearby Hijra Mosque, received a call from the landlord who had rented the house to the group.

The landlord was worried about his new tenants and what he felt was their suspicious behaviour, and wanted them to leave, said Mr Lateef.

When Mr Lateef and several other members of the mosque visited the house, the man who answered the door said the family was from Kattankudy, the home town of Zaharan Hashim, the mastermind of the Easter Sunday attacks and the base of the National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ) extremist group that Hashim founded.

The mosque delegation politely asked them to leave by the following day.

Meanwhile, after Friday prayers, local shopkeeper Mohammed Rizwan was chatting with a group of friends about the new arrivals. They had heard they were from Kattankudy and resolved to check them out.

When Mr Rizwan went by in the early evening, he said a man at the house told him to get out and pointed a gun at his chest. Mr Rizwan took off running, alerting the nearest police officer he could find - a local traffic cop.

 
 

Minutes later, the first blast shook the house, followed by another. Then a third. But this time, special police units and soldiers were on the scene.

The blasts blew a hole in the roof and wall of the house. Security forces exchanged gunfire with a man carrying an AK-47 rifle, who was shot dead.

Amid the confusion, security forces also shot at three people in an auto rickshaw that failed to heed warnings to stop, injuring two and killing one. It turned out that the trio had no connection to the attacks.

Earlier on Friday, police had raided a house about 5km from the rented home. There, they found a cache of explosives, police said, plus the clothing and flag used by the Easter Sunday bombers to record a video professing allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group.

When the authorities entered the home in Sainthamaruthu at dawn on Saturday, they found the charred bodies of children in a corner of a room. They also discovered two survivors - an injured woman and toddler were taken to the hospital.

The house contained bomb-making equipment, including detonators and plastic tubes, and three black backpacks.

Outside, the body of the man shot by the security forces - identified only as Niyaz by a local police official - lay face down on the cobbled pavement. Ripped pieces of clothing were scattered on the ground, together with bullet casings.

 
 

Nearby, hundreds of local residents had spent the morning sheltering at a school while they waited to be able to return to their homes. The entire town of Sainthamuruthu had been under a curfew.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the raid, saying three of its suicide bombers had lured police officers into an ambush. Police said no personnel were killed in the confrontation.

WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2019, with the headline 'From quiet Sri Lankan district to battle zone'. Print Edition | Subscribe