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Posts tagged ‘Lone Island of Sri Lanka’

Sri Lanka attacks boost feared ex-official’s bid for power

August 23, 2019

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — He is a feared former defense official accused of condoning rape, torture and shadowy disappearances of critics, but to many Sri Lankans, the opposition’s presidential candidate is the best choice to protect the South Asian island nation after attacks that killed over 250 people this year.

The younger brother and powerful right hand of a former strongman, Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa is seen as a hero by supporters for bringing a bloody end to a decadeslong civil war in 2009 and has cast himself as Sri Lanka’s protector.

“I will accept responsibility for your safety, and the safety of your children and your loved ones,” Gotabaya said as he launched his campaign this month. “I will never allow extremist terrorism in this country.”

His message, met with thundering applause from supporters, resonates as the government faces blistering criticism for a high-level intelligence lapse that President Maithripala Sirisena has acknowledged allowed a group of radicalized Sri Lankans to carry out suicide bombings on Easter Sunday.

Gotabaya “is the most ideal leader the country needs at this time of crisis, and with this attack, his leadership has become more important,” said Sujeewa Manage, a government employee. Despite allegations of bloodshed and war crimes that still haunt the country, Gotabaya’s hardened reputation and vow to ensure national security became a selling point after the attacks on three luxury hotels and three churches that left 263 dead and 500 wounded.

Having enjoyed 10 years of peace, the brazenness of the April 21 attacks jolted Sri Lanka, conjuring the days of bombs going off in the capital of Colombo when rebels fought for an independent state for the country’s ethnic Tamil minority.

The Sri Lankan government came under fire for not acting on near-specific intelligence information from Indian security forces on plans to attack churches. Officials have acknowledged that some Sri Lankan intelligence units were aware of possible attacks weeks before the bombings.

Gotabaya, who has been plotting a return to power since his brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa lost reelection in 2015, is seizing a key moment as voters grasp for a return to safety and a bitter divide roils the ruling coalition government.

Incumbent President Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last October and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as his constitutional No. 2. The Supreme Court ruled against the move and reinstated Wickremesinghe.

Sirisena’s party is now divided, with the Rajapaksa brothers absorbing a big chunk of its supporters in a new party. Wickremesinghe and Sirisena are both expected to seek the presidency, but the political upheaval and the attacks will hurt the incumbent’s chances in an election to be held between Nov. 8 and Dec. 8.

Meanwhile, Gotabaya says the ruling government has made national security weaker and he can fill the void. “After the attacks, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s name came high on this list of possible strong leaders,” political analyst Jehan Perera said.

The former defense secretary is a hero to many of the nation’s majority Sinhalese Buddhists, but his candidacy is a fearsome prospect to others. Gotabaya was suspected of ordering kidnappings through so-called white van squads that whisked away rebel suspects, journalists and other government critics. Some victims were tortured and then released, while others disappeared.

Victims who say the military and police forces under Gotabaya’s watch repeatedly tortured and raped political opponents have sued the former defense official, who’s also a U.S. citizen, in federal court in Los Angeles. They brought their case under a statute that allows U.S. lawsuits over acts of torture and killings committed in foreign countries.

The daughter of a top journalist killed in 2009 also has sued Gotabaya in Los Angeles and is seeking damages. Gotabaya has denied the allegations and says he’s started the process of renouncing his American citizenship because Sri Lankan law doesn’t permit dual citizens to hold office.

Gotabaya also has been implicated in the killing of rebels and civilians who tried to surrender with white flags under a prearranged deal in the final days of the 26-year civil war. Some 45,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the last months of the war alone, according to a U.N. report.

In the final years of his brother’s regime, Gotabaya has been accused of promoting hard-line Buddhist groups that carried out anti-Muslim hate campaigns and attacks on their businesses. He has denied the allegations.

He also faces a corruption case accusing him of misappropriating $191,000 in state funds for the construction of a memorial for his parents. There are other police investigations into allegations of corruption and other misdeeds involving his close relatives.

Dharmasiri Lankapeli, a trade union and media rights activist, said national security is just a political slogan used by Gotabaya and his team to capture power. “People knew and understood what happened in the country when he was the defense ministry secretary and how hard it was for the people,” Lankapeli said. “If he comes to power, the democratic space for dissent and for alternative opinion that the people enjoyed during the past four years will be threatened.”

Under the ruling government, more than a dozen soldiers, including intelligence officials, have been arrested on suspicion of several killings and attacks of political opponents and journalists during the Rajapaksa era. Some have been indicted.

“If he (Gotabaya) comes to power, the investigations on alleged misdeeds that occurred during Rajapaksa period will be swept under the carpet,” Lankapeli said. But Ajith Kumara, a rickshaw driver in Colombo, said Sri Lanka needs a strong leader like Gotabaya.

“He will be tough, but the country needs such a person to discipline and develop the country,” Kumara said. “If he was there, the attack would not have happened.” To win, Gotabaya needs to convince more than 50% of Sri Lanka’s 15.9 million voters.

“If Gotabaya is to generate votes he must know that people vote for a candidate out of the love for him, not because they fear him,” columnist Ravi Nagahawatte wrote in the Daily Mirror newspaper.

No Mass for Sri Lanka’s Catholics; no veils for Muslim women

April 28, 2019

AMPARA, Sri Lanka (AP) — The effects of Sri Lanka’s Easter suicide bombings reverberated across two faiths Sunday, with Catholics shut out of their churches for fear of new attacks, left with only a televised Mass, and Muslim women ordered to stop wearing veils in public.

Many across the nation knelt before their televisions as Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, delivered a homily before members of the clergy and the country’s leaders in a small chapel at his residence in the capital.

The closing of all of Sri Lanka’s Catholic churches — an extraordinary measure unheard of in the church’s centuries on this island off the southern tip of India — came after local officials and the U.S. Embassy in Colombo warned that more militants remained on the loose with explosives a week after bombings claimed by the Islamic State group and aimed at churches and hotels killed more than 250 people.

Before services began, the Islamic State group claimed three militants who blew themselves up Friday night after exchanging fire with police in the country’s east. Investigators sifting through that site and others uncovered a bomb-making operation capable of spreading far more destruction.

“This is a time our hearts are tested by the great destruction that took place last Sunday,” Ranjith told those watching across the nation. “This is a time questions such as, does God truly love us, does he have compassion toward us, can arise in human hearts.”

Later on Sunday, President Maithripala Sirisena banned all kinds of face coverings that may conceal people’s identities. The emergency law, which takes effect Monday, prevents Muslim women from veiling their faces.

The decision came after the Cabinet had proposed laws on face veils at a recent meeting. It had deferred the matter until talks with Islamic clerics could be held, on the advice of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

In a rare show of unity, Sirisena, Wickremesinghe and opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa had attended the Mass in person. Their political rivalry and government dysfunction are blamed for a failure to act upon near-specific information received from foreign intelligence agencies that preceded the bombings, which targeted three churches and three luxury hotels.

Police said they had arrested 48 suspects over the last 24 hours as checkpoints mounted by all of Sri Lanka’s security forces sprung up across this country of 21 million people. Those arrested include two men whom authorities recently appealed to the public to locate.

The government also warned that it would crack down on those spreading false information and making inflammatory remarks. Police, meanwhile, entered the main mosque of National Towheed Jamaat on Sunday afternoon, just a day after authorities declared it and another organization terror groups over the bombings.

Police entered the mosque, located in Kattankudy in eastern Sri Lanka, and stopped an interview among foreign journalists and mosque officials. Later, a senior police officer dispersed journalists waiting outside, saying authorities were conducting a “cordon and search operation.”

Police then left, locking up the mosque just before afternoon prayers were to start. Authorities banned National Towheed Jamaat over its ties to Mohammed Zahran, the alleged mastermind of the Easter Sunday bombings. Zahran and masked others had pledged their loyalty to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before carrying out the attacks, showing the danger the extremist group poses even after losing all its territory in Iraq and Syria.

On Friday night, a confrontation with police sparked a firefight with the militants in Kalmunai, some 225 kilometers (140 miles) northeast of Colombo. Sri Lanka’s military said the gunfire and later suicide blasts killed 15 people, including six children.

On Sunday, the Islamic State group claimed three of the militants who blew themselves up there. In a statement carried by the extremists’ Aamaq news agency, IS identified the bombers by their noms du guerre as Abu Hammad, Abu Sufyan and Abu al-Qa’qa. It said they opened fire with automatic weapons and “after exhausting their ammunition, detonated … their explosive belts.”

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said a woman and a 4-year-old child found wounded after the gunbattle have been identified as Zahran’s wife and daughter. At the main police station in Ampara, an outdoor stage now holds what police recovered after the firefight. The IS-aligned militants had created a bomb-making factory at the home, complete with laboratory-style beakers and thick rubber gloves.

Bags of fertilizer, gunpowder and small ball bearings filled boxes. Police found tens of liters (gallons) of acids, used to make the fire of the blast more lethal. A police investigator, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to publicly comment, said the mix of acids worsened the wounds suffered by those who didn’t immediately die in the blast.

“At the hospital a lot more people died. That’s why,” he said, nodding toward the acids. “It made the wounds incurable.” The bombers likely carried two rectangular detonators in their pockets similar to the ones recovered, the investigator said. A red switch armed the explosives, while a light teal button detonated the bombs hidden inside of their large backpacks.

Along with the acids, the bombs contained a mixture of fertilizer, gunpowder, ball bearings and explosives typically used by quarries to blast loose rocks, the investigator said. Those explosives made the bombs powerful enough to blow the roof off of St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, he said, referring to one of the churches near Colombo targeted in the Easter attacks.

The Sri Lankan navy controls the sale of the mining explosives and investigators already have begun tracing the serial numbers off of the plastic sticks, he said. A notebook contained bomb-making instructions that had apparently been explained to the writer.

Police also recovered religious tracts in Tamil glorifying suicide bombings, saying they granted the attacker direct entrance to heaven. The investigator contrasted that to the Tamil Tigers, a separatist group the government defeated in 2009 after a 26-year civil war.

“Their only intention is to kill as many as possible,” the investigator said. “That is different than the Tamil Tigers. They wanted to control land. These people want to kill as many as possible.”

Francis reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Associated Press journalists Gemunu Amarasinghe and Rishabh Jain contributed to this report.

Sri Lanka Muslims brave militant threats for Friday prayers

April 27, 2019

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — At 12:10 p.m. Friday, men and boys in a Muslim neighborhood in Sri Lanka’s capital did something everyone had warned them not to do: They came together to pray. Hundreds gathered at the Masjidus Salam Jumma mosque for their communal Friday prayers, one of many mosques that conducted services despite warnings of retaliatory violence.

And while praying through tears to Allah to help their fellow countrymen, all stressed one thing: the Islamic State-claimed Easter attacks targeting churches and hotels that killed at least 250 people came from people who didn’t truly believe the teachings of Islam.

They are “not Muslims. This is not Islam. This is an animal,” said Akurana Muhandramlage Jamaldeen Mohamed Jayfer, the chairman of the mosque. “We don’t have a word (strong enough) to curse them.” Up until the call to prayer echoed through Colombo’s Maligawatta neighborhood at noon, it wasn’t certain the community would be able to pray. On Thursday, the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka issued a stark warning over Twitter that places of worship could be targeted by militants through the weekend. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also told The Associated Press he feared some of the suspects “may go out for a suicide attack” and local authorities urged Muslims to pray at home.

But Friday prayers hold a special importance to Muslims as the Quran has its own chapter on the worship called “Al-Jumah,” or Friday in Arabic. “When the call is made for prayer on Friday, hurry toward the remembrance of Allah, and leave all business,” the Quran commands.

For Muslims, Friday prayers means dressing in their nicest clothes and communing with others, often sharing a meal after listening to the imam and praying. The day carries the same significance for Muslims in Sri Lanka, where Arab traders brought Islam in the 7th century. Today, nearly 10% of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people are Muslim.

In the hours before, community leaders decided that women should stay home for the prayers because of the threat. It remained unclear if they would hold the prayers, even as young men stopped in the mosque for a moment of quiet prayer, their sweat dripping from their brows as they bowed down on the purple-and-gray carpeting.

“Everyone is nervous,” said Abdullah Mohammed, 48. “Not just the Muslims. Buddhists, Christians, Hindus — everybody’s nervous.” But as the time drew closer, they decided to hold them. Sri Lankan police officers armed with Kalashnikov rifles stood guard around the mosque, blocking the street. Organizers posted young volunteers to watch surrounding streets above the mosque, near a major cricket stadium.

Inside the mosque, a young man worked on its internal security cameras, one hanging above wooden carvings of Arabic calligraphy and copies of the Quran. Jayfer said they had been installed two years earlier, but they needed repair “given what’s happening.”

When the electronic clock struck 12:10 p.m., a caller got on the loudspeaker, saying “Allah akbar,” or God is great. Men and boys quickly filled two floors of the mosque and part of a third as Imam Mohamed Imran stood before them on the minbar, the pulpit from which he preached.

In English and later Tamil, Imran reminded the congregation they remain a minority in Sri Lanka, that they need to pray and ask for God’s help. As the sermon ended, he offered a prayer, growing emotional as he asked for God for help. Several men in the congregation cried.

Then they bowed toward Mecca and its cube-shaped Kaaba, finishing their prayers and walking safely out of the mosque into the street below. A new sign in Sinhala hung by the mosque outside offered condolences, saying that just because the attackers had Arab names didn’t make them Muslims.

“It is our country. We are Sri Lankans,” Jayfer said. All “Sri Lankans have a duty to be calm and quiet. (There) has to be peace.”

Sri Lanka Muslims, refugees fear backlash from Easter attack

April 25, 2019

PASYALA, Sri Lanka (AP) — After fleeing their homes in Pakistan over militant attacks and government persecution, hundreds of Ahmadi Muslims felt they finally found peace in Sri Lanka as they sought resettlement across the world.

Then came the Easter bombings that killed over 350 people, many Christians praying at church, and suddenly they were targeted again. They say Sri Lankans suspicious of their beards, their little-known faith and nationalities shouted at some, throwing stones and hitting them with sticks. Others saw their homes attacked.

Now nearly 200 huddle inside their mosque in Negombo and more than 500 sought shelter in the small town of Pasyala, 30 kilometers (20 miles) away — just one sign of the fear pervading the Muslim community across this multiethnic island off the southern tip of India.

Activists say some Muslim youths have disappeared, perhaps arrested by tightlipped security forces, while others stay at home, fearful the bombings will spark retaliation from either the government or angry mobs in a nation where interreligious violence can strike.

“The people in Pakistan attacked us and say we’re not Muslims,” said Tariq Ahmed, a 58-year-old Ahmadi who fled his home. “Then in Sri Lanka, people attack us because they say we are Muslims.” Sunday’s coordinated suicide bombings targeted three churches and three hotels, killing at least 359 people and wounding 500 more. Authorities have blamed a local group, National Towheed Jamaat, previously only known for vandalizing Buddhist statues and the extremist online sermons of its leader, alternately named Mohammed Zahran or Zahran Hashmi.

But by Tuesday, the Islamic State group had asserted it carried out the assault, bolstering its claim by publishing images of Zahran and others pledging loyalty to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The Ahmadi Muslims say the harassment only grew more amplified in the days after the attack, fueled by a mistaken sense that since they came from Pakistan, they too must be like the extremists.

But the Ahmadi themselves have fled decades of persecution in Pakistan. Ahmadis believe another Islamic prophet, Ahmad, appeared in the 19th century, a view at odds with the fundamental Islamic principle that Muhammad was the final messenger sent by God.

Pakistan changed its constitution in 1974 to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims. Ten years later, the government declared it a criminal offense for Ahmadis to “pose as Muslims.” They are forbidden from calling their places of worship mosques and cannot sound the call to prayer. Like other religious minorities, they can face blasphemy laws that carry the death penalty, sometimes used by neighbors in petty disputes to target them.

“We are not their enemies. We are facing the same situation these people are facing,” said Qazi Moin Ahmed, 21. “We are not terrorists, but they consider us terrorists.” Tension grew quickly in Negombo after Sunday’s bombing, which left dozens dead at St. Sebastian’s Church. Ahmadi Muslims who spoke to The Associated Press described being pulled out of tuk-tuks, hit with sticks or pelted with stones. Others said mobs sometimes broke into homes, while others said their Christian landlords, the police or soldiers helped bring them to safety.

Now, police and soldiers protect the Ahmadi mosque in Negombo, while police man an under-construction Ahmadi community center in Pasyala, where some 500 other Ahmadis had been bused. Nearly all the Ahmadis came to Sri Lanka with hopes of being resettled elsewhere in the world by UNHCR.

Babar Baloch, a UNHCR spokesman, told the AP the agency had received word from refugees that they “have been the targets of threats and intimidation,” and that efforts continued to make sure they were safe. Some 1,600 refugees and asylum seekers are registered with UNHCR in Sri Lanka, he said.

“UNHCR is working closely with local and national authorities who have been very supportive and helpful to ensure the security and safety of all refugees and asylum-seekers during this time of heightened anxiety and concern,” Baloch said.

The concern extends beyond just the Ahmadi, however. There has been religious violence previously between faiths in Sri Lanka. So far, police have conducted raids and made arrest, but have been careful not to identify suspects or areas perhaps out of the fear of stoking more anger. But even as mosques hang banners supporting the government and denouncing the attack, activists say some Muslim youth have been disappeared, likely detained by authorities.

Alaina Teplitz, the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, said she had heard of similar reports. “I think those concerns are legitimate in the sense of wanting to make sure there is no overreach given past history,” Teplitz said, referring to the abuses of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war against Tamil Tiger rebels.

The situation remains tense in Pasyala, hundreds of men catch what sleep they can outside on the patchy grass near the community center. Women and children live inside. At breakfast Thursday, the community prepared a lentil soup for those displaced. Men sat crosslegged on a long blue tarp, sopping up the soup with hunks of bread shared from a metal cauldron.

Tariq Ahmed returned to a journalist with his mobile phone. On the line was his worried sister, Bushra Bedum, who lives in Virginia. “I am very happy before because I thought he was he was safe there, but now I am frightened,” she said. “What can I do?”

Associated Press journalist Gemunu Amarasinghe contributed to this report.

Sri Lanka shakes up top security posts after deadly bombings

April 24, 2019

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s president shook up the country’s top security establishment after officials failed to act on intelligence reports warning of possible attacks before the Easter bombings that killed over 350 people, his office said Wednesday.

The capital of Colombo, meanwhile, remained rattled by reports that police were continuing to conduct controlled detonations of suspicious items three days after the attacks on churches and luxury hotels, and the U.S. ambassador said that Washington believes “the terrorist plotting is ongoing.”

During a televised speech to the nation Tuesday night, President Maithripala Sirisena said he would change the head of the defense forces within 24 hours, and on Wednesday he asked for the resignations of the defense secretary and national police chief in a dramatic internal shake-up. He did not say who would replace them.

Sirisena said he had been kept in the dark on the intelligence about the planned attacks and vowed to “take stern action” against officials who failed to share it. Government leaders have acknowledged that some intelligence units were aware of possible attacks weeks before the bombings that struck three churches and three luxury hotels. The death toll rose Wednesday to 359, with 500 people wounded. Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara also said 18 suspects were arrested overnight, raising the total detained to 58.

Sri Lankan authorities have blamed a local extremist group, National Towheed Jamaat, whose leader, alternately named Mohammed Zahran or Zahran Hashmi, became known to Muslim leaders three years ago for his incendiary online speeches. On Wednesday, junior defense minister Ruwan Wijewardene said the attackers had broken away from National Towheed Jamaat and another group, which he identified only as “JMI.”

The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the attacks. Authorities remain unsure of the group’s involvement, though authorities are investigating whether foreign militants advised, funded or guided the local bombers.

Wijewardene said many of the suicide bombers were highly educated and came from well-to-do families. “Their thinking is that Islam can be the only religion in this country,” he told reporters. “They are quite well-educated people,” he said, adding that at least one had a law degree and some may have studied in the U.K. and Australia.

A British security official has confirmed a report that a suicide bomber who is believed to have studied in the U.K. between 2006 and 2007 was Abdul Lathief Jameel Mohamed. The security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the investigation, said British intelligence was not watching Mohamed during his stay in the country. His name was first reported by Sky News.

A team of FBI agents and U.S. military officials were helping in the investigation, said U.S. Ambassador Alaina Teplitz. She told reporters that “clearly there was some failure in the system,” but said the U.S. had no prior knowledge of a threat before the attacks, the worst violence in the South Asian island nation since its civil war ended a decade ago.

Teplitz called that breakdown in communication among Sri Lankan officials “incredibly tragic.” The U.S. remains concerned over militants still at large and it believes “the terrorist plotting is ongoing,” Teplitz said, adding that Americans in Sri Lanka should continue to be careful.

Although no more bombs were found Wednesday, Sri Lanka has been on heightened alert since the attacks, with police setting off a series of controlled explosions of suspicious objects. The military has been given sweeping police powers it last used during a devastating civil war that ended in 2009.

Government statements about the attacks have been confused and sometimes contradictory, with Gunasekara, the police spokesman, telling reporters that there were nine suicide bombers — two more than officials said one day earlier.

One of the additional bombers was the wife of another bomber, he said. The woman, two children and three policemen died in an explosion as authorities closed in on her late Sunday, hours after the main attacks were launched. The ninth suicide bomber has not been identified, though two more suspects were killed in a later explosion on the outskirts of Colombo.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe edged away from comments made by his state minister of defense that the bombings were carried out in apparent retaliation for the March 15 mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, that killed 50 people. He told reporters Wednesday that the mosque attack may have been a motivation for the bombings, but that there was no direct evidence of that. An Australian white supremacist was arrested in the Christchurch shootings.

While Sri Lanka’s recent history has been rife with ethnic and sectarian conflict, the Easter bombings still came as a shock to the country of 21 million. It is dominated by Sinhalese Buddhists but also has a significant Tamil minority, most of whom are Hindu, Muslim or Christian.

Tamil Tiger rebels were known for staging suicide bombings during their 26-year civil war for independence, but religion had little role in that fighting. The Tigers were crushed by the government in 2009. Anti-Muslim bigotry fed by Buddhist nationalists has swept the country since the war ended but Sri Lanka has no history of Islamic militancy. Its small Christian community has seen only scattered incidents of harassment.

Associated Press writers Bharatha Mallawarachi and Jon Gambrell in Colombo and Gregory Katz in London contributed.

Explosions kill at least 138 in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday

April 21, 2019

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — At least 138 people were killed and hundreds more hospitalized from injuries in near simultaneous blasts that rocked three churches and three luxury hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, a security official told The Associated Press, in the biggest violence in the South Asian country since its civil war ended a decade ago.

Two of the blasts were suspected to have been carried out by suicide bombers, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak with reporters. Worshippers and hotel guests were among the dead, the official said.

The magnitude of the bloodshed recalled Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war, when separatist Tamil Tigers and other rebel groups targeted the Central Bank, a shopping mall, a Buddhist temple and hotels popular with tourists.

No one has claimed responsibility for Sunday’s blasts. St. Anthony’s Shrine and the three hotels where the blasts took place are in Colombo, and are frequented by foreign tourists. A National Hospital spokesman, Dr. Samindi Samarakoon, told AP they received 47 dead, including nine foreigners, and were treating more than 200 wounded.

Local TV showed damage at the Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels. The Shangri-La’s second-floor restaurant was gutted in the blast, with the ceiling and windows blown out. Loose wires hung and tables were overturned in the blackened space.

A police magistrate was at the hotel to inspect the bodies recovered from the restaurant. From outside the police cordon, three bodies could be seen covered in white sheets. Alex Agieleson, who was near the shrine, said buildings shook with the blast, and that a number of injured people were carried away in ambulances.

Other blasts were reported at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, a majority Catholic town north of Colombo, and at Zion Church in the eastern town of Batticaloa. St. Sebastian’s appealed for help on its Facebook page.

The explosion ripped off the roof and knocked out doors and windows at St. Sebastian’s, where people carried the wounded away from blood-stained pews, TV footage showed. Sri Lankan security officials said they were investigating. Police immediately sealed off the areas.

Sri Lankan security forces in 2009 defeated Tamil Tiger rebels who had fought to create an independent homeland for the country’s ethnic minority Tamils. The U.N. initially estimated the death toll from 26 years of fighting to be about 100,000 but a U.N. experts’ panel later said some 45,000 ethnic Tamils may have been killed in the last months of the fighting alone.

Government troops and the Tamil Tigers were both accused of grave human rights violations, which prompted local and international calls for investigations.

Sri Lankan president doubts he can work with reappointed PM

December 17, 2018

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s president accused newly reappointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of corrupt leadership in a scathing speech Sunday in which he voiced doubts about their ability to work together and signaled the 2-month political crisis is far from resolved.

President Maithripala Sirisena administered the oath that returned Wickremesinghe to office, then gave a speech soon after the ceremony, telling the prime minister and a group of his lawmakers that he can’t find people of honesty and integrity to help him take the country forward.

“With the issues we have, I am not sure what guarantees we have that we could go on this journey together,” Sirisena told Wickremesinghe. The swearing in took place privately, with only a few lawmakers in attendance and media not permitted. It initially indicated an end to the impasse, but Sirisena’s speech is a sign of more acrimony, possibly leading to early parliamentary elections. A new Cabinet is expected to be sworn in soon.

Wickremesinghe spoke separately at his official residence and refrained from responding to Sirisena. “Now I will assume duties of the office of prime minister,” Wickremesinghe told his cheering supporters.

“Unfortunately, during the past few weeks, the progress of this country and the development programs that we undertook were stalled,” he said. “Not only that, the country went backward. Today we commit firstly to bring back normalcy and resuming the development program.”

In his televised speech, Sirisena said his reasons for firing Wickremesinghe included a lack of interest in helping investigate an alleged insider trade during a bond issue, in which a former Central Bank governor who is a close friend of Wickremesinghe is implicated.

He also said Wickremesinghe’s ministers alienated Buddhist monks by having them arrested for keeping unlicensed captive elephants at temples. Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist nation with an influential clergy.

Sirisena also criticized Wickremesinghe for investigations into alleged abuses during the long civil war that ended in 2009. The president said Wickremesinghe had only government soldiers arrested but had not looked into prosecuting former Tamil Tiger rebels he said were hiding in foreign countries.

“My view is that we should prosecute everyone, or else we should negotiate with the international community and free our soldiers (from accusations),” he said. Both sides were accused of grave wartime abuses. According to a U.N. report, at least 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed just in the final months of the fighting.

Wickremesinghe had insisted his abrupt firing on Oct. 26 was unlawful. Sirisena’s choice for prime minister, former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, lost two no-confidence votes in Parliament but continued to hold the office with Sirisena’s support.

When his opponents went to court, the Court of Appeal suspended Rajapaksa and his Cabinet from functioning in their offices. Rajapaksa asked the Supreme Court to lift the suspension, but it refused and extended the suspension until mid-January, forcing Rajapaksa to resign on Saturday.

The suspension had left Sri Lanka without a government and in danger of being unable to spend government money from Jan. 1. It is also committed to repay $1 billion in foreign debts in January. “We can be proud of the way our Parliament and Supreme Court did their duties according to the law,” Wickremesinghe said Sunday, adding that the Supreme Court had strengthened the freedom of the citizens by interpreting the law accurately.

“We all need a normal life, we need our progress and it is to this that we are committed,” he said. Sirisena was health minister in Rajapaksa’s Cabinet when he defected to join Wickremesinghe and challenge Rajapaksa in the 2015 presidential election. After winning the election, he formed a government with Wickremesinghe as prime minister, but the two leaders started to have differences over economic policy and the investigations of alleged wartime abuses.

Disputed Sri Lankan PM faces 2nd no-confidence motion

November 16, 2018

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Lawmakers in Sri Lanka’s Parliament supporting disputed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa threw books, chairs and chili powder mixed with water to try to block the proceedings on Friday, a day after a fierce brawl between rival lawmakers worsened political turmoil in the island nation.

Police who escorted Speaker Karu Jayasuriya into the chamber held boards around him to protect him from being hit by the angry Rajapaksa loyalists, who did not allow him to sit in the speaker’s chair. Several opposition lawmakers and policemen were wounded.

Sri Lanka has been in a political crisis since Oct. 26, when President Maithripala Sirisena abruptly sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed Rajapaksa. Wickremesinghe says he still has the support of a majority in Parliament.

Jayasuriya, using a microphone, conducted the proceedings while standing on the floor of Parliament, which for the second time passed a no-confidence motion against Rajapaksa and his government by a voice vote.

Jayasuriya first offered to take the vote by name, but was unable to do so because of the commotion and opted for a voice vote. He then adjourned the house until Monday. Lawmakers loyal to Rajapaksa hooted and continued to hurl abuse at Jayasuriya until he left the chamber. Arundika Fernando, a lawmaker allied with Rajapaksa, sat in the speaker’s chair while others shouted slogans.

Sirisena vowed not to dissolve Parliament and called upon “all parties to uphold principles of democracy and parliamentary traditions at all times.” Sirisena dissolved Parliament a week ago and ordered new elections, but the Supreme Court on Tuesday suspended Sirisena’s directive.

Opposition lawmaker R. Sampathan accused Rajapaksa loyalists of preventing a roll-call vote on the no-confidence motion, as requested earlier by Sirisena. On Thursday, Sirisena held an emergency meeting with the leaders of the opposition parties that voted for the first motion against Rajapaksa and asked them to take up the motion again and allow it to be debated and then put to a roll-call vote.

Sirisena held the meeting following the chaos in Parliament on Thursday, when rival lawmakers exchanged blows, leaving one injured, after the speaker announced the country had no prime minister or government because of Wednesday’s motion against Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa has refused to accept the no-confidence motion, also saying it should not have been done by voice vote. He also insisted the speaker had no authority to remove him and said he is continuing in his role as prime minister.

Rajapaksa, a former president, is considered a hero by some in the ethnic Sinhalese majority for ending a long civil war by crushing ethnic Tamil Tiger rebels. However, his time in power was marred by allegations of wartime atrocities, corruption and nepotism.

Tensions had been building between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe for some time, as the president did not approve of economic reforms introduced by the prime minister. Sirisena has also accused Wickremesinghe and another Cabinet member of plotting to assassinate him, a charge Wickremesinghe has repeatedly denied.

Sri Lankan lawmakers fight in Parliament over PM dispute

November 15, 2018

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Rival lawmakers exchanged blows in Sri Lanka’s Parliament on Thursday as disputed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa claimed the speaker had no authority to remove him from office by voice vote.

The fighting in the chamber came a day after it passed a no-confidence vote against Rajapaksa’s government. When Parliament re-convened, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya said the country had no government and there was no prime minister — either Rajapaksa or his rival whose ousting in late October by the president started the crisis.

Rajapaksa disagreed, saying “a vote should have been taken. Such important motions should not be passed by a voice vote.” He added that Jayasuriya has no power to remove or appoint the prime minister and Cabinet members.

He accused the speaker of being partial and representing the position of his party, the United National Party, which is led by ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Rajapaksa also called for fresh elections, suggesting that it was the best way to resolve the crisis.

The brawl erupted after the opposition asked for a vote on Rajapaksa’s statement, with lawmakers supporting him gathering in the middle of the house while some ran toward the speaker shouting slogans condemning his behavior.

More than 50 lawmakers in the 225-member house fought and some who fell on the floor were kicked by rivals. Some of the lawmakers supporting Rajapaksa threw water bottles, books and trash cans at the speaker. Those opposed to Rajapaksa surrounded Jayasuriya to protect him.

Dilum Amunugama, an ally of Rajapaksa, was taken to a hospital with injuries to his hand while trying to pull out a microphone from the speaker’s table. The commotion went on for about half an hour before Jayasuriya adjourned the house.

“The speaker was under complete siege, he came very close to being physically assaulted by MPs supporting Rajapaksa,” said Chandani Kirinde, a senior correspondent of the Sunday Times, a weekly paper in Sri Lanka. “While clashes have happened in the house, this is probably the first time the speaker came under so much intimidation and abuse.”

On Wednesday, Jayasuriya said debate on the no-confidence motion was not possible after the chamber descended into chaos and he had no choice but to take an oral vote. In January, lawmakers also exchanged blows during a debate over alleged corruption that marred the reputation of Wickremesinghe’s government that was elected on a platform of good governance.

Sri Lanka has been in a crisis since Oct. 26, when President Maithripala Sirisena suddenly fired Wickremesinghe and replaced him with Rajapaksa. The former president is considered a hero by some of the ethnic Sinhalese majority for ending a long civil war by crushing Tamil Tiger rebels. However, his time in power was marred by allegations of wartime atrocities, corruption and nepotism.

Tensions had been building between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe for some time, as the president did not approve of economic reforms introduced by the prime minister. Sirisena has also accused Wickremesinghe and another Cabinet member of plotting to assassinate him, a charge Wickremesinghe has repeatedly denied.

Sirisena had also suspended Parliament, apparently to allow Rajapaksa time to gather support among lawmakers. But Wickremesinghe insisted his firing was unconstitutional. He refused to vacate his official residence and demanded that Parliament be summoned to prove he still has support.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court suspended Sirisena’s order to dissolve Parliament and hold new elections until next month.

Chaotic Sri Lankan Parliament rejects president’s chosen PM

November 14, 2018

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s Parliament passed a no-confidence vote against the government headed by the hastily sworn-in Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa as lawmakers convened Wednesday for the first time since the president dismissed his Cabinet and suspended the legislature last month.

The motion brought by the leader of an opposition party could mean that Rajapaksa will have to resign his post but does not necessarily mean the leader whose ousting set off the crisis will be reinstated.

Lawmakers supporting Ranil Wickremesinghe, whom President Maithripala Sirisena replaced with Rajapaksa on Oct. 26, had a visible majority in the chamber. Many wore shawls with the words “For democracy.”

As Speaker of Parliament Karu Jayasuriya prepared to let the no-confidence motion be debated, the chamber descended into chaos, with lawmakers supporting Rajapaksa filing into the center of the room shouting political slogans and accusing Jayasuriya of betraying the people’s mandate.

Jayasuriya then said he had no choice but to bypass the debate and take an oral vote, with those in favor clearly voicing more support for the motion than those against it. Before the results were announced, Rajapaksa walked out of the chamber.

After it became clear last week that Rajapaksa would not survive a no-confidence motion, Sirisena dissolved Parliament, but the Supreme Court on Tuesday had ordered the legislature to keep working until next month.

Namal Rajapaksa, a lawmaker in his father’s United People Freedom Alliance party, told The Associated Press that they “don’t accept this verdict” and will continue as the government. Lawmaker Ajith Perera, a Wickremesinghe supporter, said the results of the vote meant Wickremesinghe and his government would be reinstated.

It’s unclear if that would be the case. Parliament adjourned after the vote and is to reconvene Thursday morning.

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