Sri Lanka says leader of Easter Day bombings died in hotel attack

Zahran Hashim founded the group accused of killing more than 250 people at churches and hotels

TOPSHOT - Soldiers stand guard outside a mosque ahead of the Friday noon prayer in Colombo on April 26, 2019, following a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. Authorities in Sri Lanka on April 25 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. / AFP / Jewel SAMAD
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An extremist preacher considered a central figure in Sri Lanka's Easter bombings died in the attacks, police said on Friday as the president revealed that about 140 people in the country had been found to have links to ISIS.

With the country still on edge, heavy security was put in place for Friday prayers at mosques, but authorities lowered the death toll from the bombings to 253 dead from 359, saying some badly mutilated bodies had been counted twice.

Police said on an official Twitter account that Zahran Hashim, the leader of local militant group National Tawheed Jamaat who was known for extremist speeches on social media, had been killed in one of the suicide bombings at three churches and three luxury hotels.

Police also said they had arrested the group's second-in-command.

They said investigators had determined that the attackers' military training was provided by someone they called "Army Mohideen", and that weapons training had taken place overseas and at some locations in Sri Lanka's Eastern Province.

President Maithripala Sirisena told reporters that Hashim died in one of the hotel bombings.

"What intelligence agencies have told me is that Zahran was killed during the Shangri-La attack," he said.

He said Hashim led the attack against the hotel and was accompanied by a second bomber, who has been identified as Ilham Ibrahim.

Authorities had been hunting for Hashim after the government named his group as perpetrators of the attack.

Hashim, who founded the NTJ, appeared in a video released by ISIS when it claimed the strikes. He is seen leading seven others in a pledge of allegiance to the ISIS chief.

Mr Sirisena said that about 140 people in the country had been identified as having links to ISIS, and that the government had the capability "to completely control ISIS activities" in the country.

"We will completely control this and create a free and peaceful environment for people to live," he said.

With Sri Lankan officials on the defensive for apparently ignoring foreign warnings that attacks were likely, police chief Pujith Jayasundara became the second senior figure to resign.

Sri Lanka's top defence ministry official Hemasiri Fernando stepped down late on Thursday and the inspector general of police had also tendered his resignation, Mr Sirisena said, insisting that security institutions must "take responsibility".

"The defence secretary [Fernando] and IGP must take responsibility for the security failure," he said.

"That is why I asked them both to resign before I hold a disciplinary inquiry."

The government has faced recriminations over its failure to prevent the attacks despite receiving warnings.

Indian intelligence shared several warnings about planned attacks with Sri Lankan authorities, an Indian source told Agence France-Presse, but the information was not given to ministers, in what Colombo has called a "major" lapse.

The military has poured troops into the streets to bolster police as they search for suspects using newly granted powers under a state of emergency.

At least 74 people are in custody so far, including a man believed to be the father of two of the bombers.

Police on Thursday released the names and photos of six wanted suspects – three men and three women.

But in an embarrassing blunder they later admitted the photo accompanying the names of one of the female suspects was incorrect. The photo was in fact of an American Muslim activist.

Police say however that the name of the wanted suspect is correct.

Nationwide, security remained tight, including at mosques in the country ahead of weekly Friday prayers.

Sri Lanka's Muslim Affairs Minister Abdul Haleem on Thursday urged mosques to cancel Friday prayers in solidarity with the Catholic church which has announced it is suspending all public services over security fears.

Muslim communities have also expressed fears of a backlash after the attacks, so it was not immediately clear how many people would gather at mosques for the Friday afternoon prayers.

At the Shaikh Usman Waliyullah Shrine and Masjid, a Sufi mosque in Colombo, only a handful of worshippers had arrived by midday on Thursday.

Muslim leaders have condemned the attacks and said they warned authorities several times about Hashim's extremism.

The government has urged national unity, and warned against a backlash, but a group of Muslim refugees in Negombo, site of one of the attacked churches, has fled their homes after facing intimidation, activists say.

The refugees from countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan are from the Ahmadi sect, which hardline Muslims do not consider to be mainstream Islam.

The dead in the blasts included dozens of tourists, although it was not clear if the revised toll would affect the final toll for foreigners.

Health Ministry director general Anil Jasinghe said the "very complex nature of the human remains" had made it hard for forensic experts to initially compile an accurate toll.

Mr Jasinghe said the mission had been a "grim task" for staff.

Several countries, including Israel, Australia and Britain, have warned their citizens against visiting Sri Lanka, in a blow for the country's burgeoning tourism industry.