In wake of deadly attacks, Sri Lanka President vows stability before vote

The presidential vote is likely to take place between Nov 10 and Dec 10 and sources close to Maithripala Sirisena have told Reuters that he would seek re-election.
The presidential vote is likely to take place between Nov 10 and Dec 10 and sources close to Maithripala Sirisena have told Reuters that he would seek re-election.PHOTO: REUTERS

COLOMBO (REUTERS) - Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena said on Saturday (May 4) that the security forces would "eradicate terrorism" following devastating suicide attacks on Easter Sunday and restore stability before a presidential election due by year-end.

Mr Sirisena also said in an interview that he believed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was behind the April 21 attacks, which targeted churches and luxury hotels and killed more than 250 people including 42 foreign nationals. The group has claimed responsibility.

"Elections cannot be postponed, therefore before the elections I will bring about stability and I will eradicate terrorism," Mr Sirisena told Reuters.

The presidential vote is likely to take place between Nov 10 and Dec 10 and sources close to the President have told Reuters that he would seek re-election.

"We have already identified all active members of the group and it's a case of now arresting them," Mr Sirisena said, adding that there were a further 25 to 30 "active members" linked to the bombings still at large.

He said that all indications suggested ISIS had been involved, adding: "It's crystal clear because after the attacks the ISIS organisation made an announcement claiming responsibility for the bombings."

Sri Lanka authorities have previously said that they suspect the attackers had international links, although the precise nature of those connections is not known.

 
 
 

Police have said two previously little-known groups - National Thowheeth Jama'ath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim - carried out the bombings.

Mr Sirisena said that intelligence services from eight countries, including the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation and Interpol, were helping Sri Lanka with the investigation.

Local intelligence officials believe that Zaharan Hashim, a radical Tamil-speaking preacher from the east of the Indian Ocean island nation, may have been a key player in plotting the bombings. Officials believe he was one of nine suicide bombers.

ATTACKERS ON LOOSE

Mr Sirisena said that the military and police have made huge progress with their investigations, but emphasised that more needs to be done.

"There are another 25 to 30 suspects still at large, but there is no information yet to say these suspects are suicide bombers."

Scores of suspected Islamists have been arrested after the Easter attacks shattered the relative peace enjoyed by the multi-ethnic nation since a civil war ended a decade ago.

Sri Lanka's security forces were on high alert amid intelligence reports that militants were likely to strike before the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, due to begin on Monday.

The government has banned women from wearing face veils under an emergency law that was put in place after the attacks.

"This is not a Sri Lanka issue, it's a global terrorist movement," Mr Sirisena said. "Even advanced countries like the US, Russia, UK, Germany, India and Australia together haven't been able to completely eradicate this ISIS global terrorism menace."

Sri Lanka's leaders, including the President, have come under heavy criticism for failing to heed warnings from Indian intelligence services - at least three in April alone - that an attack was imminent.

Mr Sirisena denied he had knowledge of the warnings before he embarked on an overseas trip on April 15.

"Had I known about this, I would have taken appropriate action, and not gone overseas," he said.

Critics said infighting between the President and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had undermined the response to the militant threat. But Mr Sirisena said he and the Prime Minister were cooperating on national security issues.

Sri Lanka's economy, already struggling with growth slipping to a 17-year low in 2018, has been dealt a "big blow" by the attacks, he said.

The tourism sector has grown rapidly in the last decade since the Sri Lankan government defeated the rebel Tamil Tigers.

Around 2.5 million tourists visit the island nation each year.

"It's a big blow to the economy, as well as the tourism industry," Mr Sirisena said. "For the economy to develop, it's important tourism return to where it was before the attacks."