Sri Lanka, Apr 26 (AP/UNB) — The suspected leader of the militant group Sri Lankan authorities said carried out a series of Easter Sunday bombings died in the blast at the Shangri-La hotel, one of six hotels and churches targeted in the attacks that killed at least 250 people, officials said Friday.
Police said on an official Twitter account that Mohamed Zahran, the leader of local militant group National Towheed Jamaat known for his vitriolic extremist speeches on social media, had been killed in one of the nine suicide bombings.
Police also said they had arrested the group's second-in-command.
They said investigators had determined that the assailants' 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.
Police also said that the attackers had worked out at a local gym and by playing soccer using their authentic national identity cards. They added that the vehicles used in the attack were purchased from a car dealership in Kadawatha, a suburb of Colombo, the capital.
They said that the operator of a copper factory who was arrested in connection with the bombings had helped Mohideen make improvised explosive devices and purchase empty cartridges sold by the Sri Lankan military as scrap copper.
Australia's prime minister said earlier Friday that it had been confirmed that the Sri Lanka attackers were supported by the Islamic State group, which has claimed responsibility for the massacre, distributing video of Zahran and others pledging allegiance to the withered caliphate.
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena told reporters in Colombo that some 140 people in the island nation had been identified as having links to the Islamic State group, and that the Sri Lankan government has "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.
Sirisena blamed Sri Lanka's defense secretary, who resigned Thursday, and police chief, who he said would soon step down, for a failure to share weeks of information from international intelligence agencies about the plot ahead of time.
Across Colombo on Friday, there was a visible increase of security as authorities warned of another attack and pursued suspects that could have access to explosives.
Armed soldiers stood guard outside St. Anthony's Shrine, one of the three churches attacked, and nearby shops were closed.
Gration Fernando crossed himself when he looked at the church after walking out of his shop there. Fernando says he, like other Sri Lankans, was worried about further attacks.
There is "no security, no safety to go to church," he said, adding that "now children are scared to go to church" as well.
Authorities told Muslims to pray at home rather than attend communal Friday prayers that are the most important of the week.
In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared some of the suspects "may go out for a suicide attack."
Afterward, in an unusually specific warning, the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka said places of worship could be hit by extremists this weekend. The U.K.'s foreign ministry advised its citizens not to travel to the island nation off the tip of India.
Late on Thursday, Sri Lanka's health ministry drastically revised down its estimated death toll from the coordinated attacks. A statement said "approximately" 253 people had died, nearly one-third lower than the police's estimated death toll of 359.
The discrepancy was not immediately explained, but it fit a pattern of claims and counterclaims by Sri Lankan officials that have muddled the investigation.
In a predominantly Muslim area of Colombo's Maligawatta neighborhood, vegetable sellers laid their produce on the sidewalks near the mosques as women in long black chador shopped.
Leaders at the neighborhood mosques said they planned still to hold Friday noon prayers. They said both the police and volunteers would be guarding the neighborhood to protect the faithful.
Imtiyas Ahamed, one prayer leader, said he planned to preach about how extremists like the Islamic State group were not faithful Muslims.
"In Islam, it is not said to kill yourself and kill others," Ahamed said.
As he spoke, men one at a time came into the mosque to pray. They sat on their knees and bowed toward Mecca, the sweat from their brows falling on the mosque's purple-and-gray carpet.
Abdullah Mohammed, 48, another Muslim from the neighborhood, stood outside.
"Everyone is nervous," Mohammed said. "Not just the Muslims. Buddhists, Christians, Hindus — everybody's nervous."
Ahamed also urged people not to think all of Sri Lanka's Muslims were like the people who carried out Sunday's attacks.
"After the New Zealand attack, we don't think every white Australian is an extremist," he said.
New Delhi, April 26 (Xinhua) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday filed his nomination papers from the Varanasi parliamentary constituency in India's northern state of Uttar Pradesh where he had comfortably won in last general elections held in 2014.
Polling of votes in Varanasi is scheduled to take place in the last and seventh phase to be held on May 19. So far three phases of the elections have taken place on April 11, 18 and Tuesday.
Elections results are slated to be announced on May 23.
Modi was accompanied by around 28 political leaders representing different political parties which are the allies of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Besides, senior BJP leaders including Party President Amit Shah, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Home Minister (Internal Security) Rajnath Singh also accompanied Modi during his nomination.
Modi belongs to the western state of Gujarat. But in the 2014 general elections, besides the Vadodara parliamentary constituency in Gujarat, he chose to contest from Varanasi as it is located in politically most important state Uttar Pradesh which has 80 parliamentary constituencies out of the total 543 in lower house Lok Sabha which go to polls every five years.
He had won from both the constituencies (Varanasi and Vadodara), but he resigned from Vadodara and represented Varanasi in the Lok Sabha for the past five years.
Albany, Apr 26(AP/UNB) — Gov. Andrew Cuomo and fellow Democrats who control the Legislature have reached a deal to make New York the third state with a ban on single-use plastic grocery bags as they worked to finalize budget agreements, officials said Friday.
The ban would prohibit grocery stores from providing plastic bags for most purchases, something California has been doing since a statewide ban was approved in 2016. Hawaii has an effective statewide ban, with all its counties imposing their own restrictions.
Supporters of such bans say they keep plastic bags from entering the environment and causing damage to ecosystems and waterways.
"With this smart, multi-pronged action New York will be leading the way to protect our natural resources now and for future generations of New Yorkers," Cuomo, who proposed a ban in his $175 billion budget proposal, said in a statement Friday.
New York's ban wouldn't take effect until next March. The plan also calls for allowing local governments the option to impose a 5-cent fee on paper bags, with 3 cents going to the state's Environmental Protection Fund and 2 cents kept by local governments.
Environmental conservation advocates had also been pushing for a statewide fee for paper bags as a way to encourage wider consumer use of reusable bags.
Nonetheless, Patrick McClellan, state policy director for the New York League of Conservation Voters, said his group was "thrilled" that the bag ban appears headed for passage.
"Plastic bags pollute our waterways and streets, and both plastic and paper bags contribute to the solid waste crisis and cost taxpayers money," he said. "While the best policy would be a ban on plastic bags coupled with a statewide fee on other disposable bags, this agreement represents a tremendous step forward."
Lawmakers are facing a Monday deadline on a budget agreement. Negotiations on other aspects of Cuomo's proposed $175 billion spending plan are continuing Friday, with the Senate and Assembly expected to start passing budget bills Sunday ahead of the April 1 start of the state's 2019-2020 fiscal year.
Lawmakers have also agreed on a measure that would close up to three yet-to-be-determined state prisons. Cuomo announced last month he wanted to reduce the number of facilities because of the state's declining inmate population.
The budget will also contain a provision requiring employers to give workers three hours off to vote on election day.
Another provision set for the budget would impose congestion tolls to ease traffic in the busiest parts of Manhattan and fund transit improvements, but details are still being discussed.
Negotiations are also continuing on a proposal to tax luxury second homes in Manhattan worth more than $5 million. The option now being considered would impose a one-time tax paid when the properties are sold, Cuomo told reporters Friday.
Revenue from the tax would go to transit.
Other pending issues still being negotiated included criminal justice reform and public financing of political campaigns.
One of the other big issues of the year — the legalization of recreational marijuana — will not be included in the budget. Cuomo said Friday that lawmakers need more time to work out the details to regulation.
Sri Lanka, Apr 26 (AP/UNB) — Australia's prime minister says the Sri Lankan militants blamed for the Easter attacks in that country had support from the Islamic State group.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters Friday that ties between the local group and Islamic State included identifying the targets of the attacks. Sunday's attacks killing at least 253 people primarily struck three churches that were packed with Easter worshippers and three luxury hotels popular with foreigners.
Morrison said the attacks demonstrated a new front in fighting terrorism, that militants who fought in Syria and Iraq had returned home with skills to carry out attacks while being part of a broader network that could provide money, training and target identification.
Heavy security is out on the streets of Sri Lanka's capital after warnings of further attacks by the militant group blamed for the Easter bombing that killed at least 250 people.
At St. Anthony's Church, one of those struck in the attacks Sunday, there were more soldiers than normal Friday. Shops nearby remained closed.
Gration Fernando crossed himself when he looked at the church after walking out of his shop there. Fernando says he, like other Sri Lankans, was worried about further attacks.
He says there's "no security, no safety to go to church." He also says "now children are scared to go to church" as well.
Authorities told Muslims to pray at home rather than attend communal Friday prayers that's the most important of the week.
Sri Lanka, Apr 26 (AP/UNB) — During the bad years, when rebels mostly from the ethnic minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese government forces were slaughtering each other in a horrific civil war, Gnanamani found solace in something many of her fellow Tamils didn't have: Christianity, and especially its long inclusion in Sri Lanka's main ethnic groups.
A religious minority here, Christians are part of both the Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic groups, unlike the mainly homogenous Tamil Hindus and Sinhalese Buddhists on the teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean.
After Islamic militants detonated suicide bombs on Sunday that killed Easter worshippers in three churches, including St. Anthony's, a few blocks from Gnanamani's home in the warren of streets of Colombo's 13th zone, she and other Tamil and Sinhalese Christians are once again turning to a religion that, unusually for Sri Lanka, binds people of different ethnicities by a single faith.
Experts and Christians interviewed by The Associated Press after the attacks say this imbedded ethnic cooperation, along with Christian leaders who have consistently preached restraint, helps explain the measured calm that has — so far — been the response to the coordinated bombing of churches and hotels that killed 253 people.
"Being a Christian sets an example to others, because we did not retaliate after this violence was done to us. We were restrained — Sinhalese and Tamil Christians both," Gnanamani, a 60-year-old housewife who goes by one name, said as she squatted on her stoop in a narrow, sunless alley, hundreds of black and white condolence streamers fluttering in a breeze above. "If this happened to Buddhist shrines or temples, there would have been an explosion of violence."
There is indeed widespread fear here that more attacks, especially if they target other faiths, could return Sri Lanka, which is majority Buddhist but has significant Christian, Muslim and Hindu populations, to something like the cycle of sectarian violence and retaliation that marked the nearly three-decade civil war that ended in 2009.
"Within the Christian community there has to be moderation because by its nature it consists of two different ethnic communities. There's a natural instinct for them to look at such religious and ethnic issues with deep compassion," said Rohan Gunaratna, a religion and security expert and co-author of "The Three Pillars of Radicalization."
But peace is not guaranteed.
"Sri Lanka must not take this Christian interreligious harmony for granted," Gunaratna said in a phone interview. "The danger is that the Christian patience could break if there are more attacks, and that is what the terrorists want."
About 7% of Sri Lanka's 21 million people are Christian, and most are Roman Catholic, according to Mathew Schmalz, a professor at the College of the Holy Cross and an expert on Christianity in South Asia.
There has not always been universal Christian unity and restraint in Sri Lanka.
During the civil war that began in 1983, Christianity was divided, with members of the faith fighting for both the largely ethnic Tamil separatists and the mostly Sinhalese Buddhist government forces, experts say, and some tension still lingers.
With the recent attacks against Christians and foreigners, there's worry that militant anti-Muslim Buddhists might be strengthened. "There might be less incentive now to step in to defend Muslims, and militant Buddhists might claim that they had been right all along to see Muslims as a threat," Schmalz said by email.
The largely peaceful mixing of religions and ethnicities found in many parts of Colombo can be seen in the extended family of Anoma Damayanthi Liyanage, a 52-year-old Buddhist factory worker who lives in a small, neat, tin-roofed house in an alley off Jampettah Street in the Kochchikade neighborhood near St. Anthony's.
Liyanage's 25-year-old daughter, who married into a Christian family, was seriously injured in the blast. Liyanage herself was at St. Anthony's and escaped the bomb only because she left a few minutes earlier with her Christian son-in-law when her 1 ½-year-old granddaughter began crying too loudly.
"It's common for Tamil and Sinhalese Christians to marry each other," Pradeepa Jayasinghe, a Sinhalese Christian relative, said. "We've always understood each other very well. We were raised from childhood together."
Her daughter, 21-year-old Hishara, said, "We get together because of our Christian traditions. We're not Tamil or Sinhalese. We look first if there is Christianity."
The bombings, however, have stirred complex feelings among Christians.
Not far from the bombed church of St. Sebastian's in a village in the city of Negombo, beyond the metal security barriers and the dozens of camouflaged soldiers carrying automatic weapons, Catholic priests Niroshan Perera and Anthony Nishan stand in their long white cassocks and watch fresh graves being dug for Christians killed by the attack on their church. There are 41 dirt mounds piled with flowers and candles, with wooden crosses marked mostly with numbers that correspond to names in a book that the priests keep.
There's fear of more violence and deep grief in this majority Christian enclave outside Colombo. "The whole village is a funeral. The houses here are filled with coffins," Nishan said of a place where about 120 Christians died in the bombing.
There's also rage. Father Perera, 45, had a single description for the politicians who were told that terror attacks against Christians might be coming but didn't notify the communities: "terrorists."
A Catholic villager — Senake Perera, 55, a Sinhalese Catholic — said he would follow the restraint preached by Catholic leaders. But he also had a very human response to the fresh graves and wooden crosses, to the coffins and the dozens of color photos of the victims displayed on banners that fill this neighborhood.
"I have a feeling in my heart that we should go after the Muslims, that we should retaliate," he said.
For the time being, however, like the Christians of Colombo interviewed by AP, there's a belief that Catholics won't hit back.
"After the tragedy, we are united because of the practice of dealing with other ethnicities which is within our Christianity," said Father Nishan, 29, who's the son of a Tamil father and Sinhalese mother, and who often gives Masses in Tamil, Sinhala and English. "Even if there are more attacks, Catholics won't respond with violence," he said. "That's the beauty of Christianity here. We don't have the division. We have to live together."