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SRI LANKA MASSACRE

Islamic State claims responsibility for attacks

Government describes bombings on Easter as response to attack on two mosques in New Zealand last month; minister acknowledges security lapses

Colombo

THE Islamic State group on Tuesday claimed responsibility for a series of bombings that killed more than 320 people in Sri Lanka as the government described the bombings on Easter as a response to the attack on two mosques in New Zealand last month.

"Those that carried out the attack that targeted members of the US-led coalition and Christians in Sri Lanka the day before yesterday are Islamic State group fighters," said a statement released by IS propaganda agency Amaq.

Two Muslim brothers - sons of a wealthy Colombo spice trader - were among the perpetrators of the attacks. They blew themselves up as guests queued for breakfast at the Shangri-La and Cinnamon Grand hotels in the capital, a source said.

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The pair were key members of the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ), which the government has previously blamed for defacing Buddhist statues, according to an investigation officer. A Sri Lankan security official characterised NTJ as a shell for the Islamic State and said it has been active in Kattankudy, an area in the eastern part of the country and home to one of its largest Muslim populations. The group's leadership is believed to be based there, the official said.

Junior minister for defence Ruwan Wijewardene who told Parliament that the attacks on three churches and four hotels were in retaliation for the New Zealand mosque attacks did not elaborate on why authorities believed there was a link to the killing of 50 people at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch during Friday prayers on March 15.

He also named another Islamist group, Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim, as being responsible for Sunday's massacre. And he acknowledged there were security lapses that allowed the attacks to occur, which he ascribed to rivalries between the president and the prime minister.

"Don't take this as a joke: As long as the division between the president and the prime minister exists, you can't solve this problem - my security division knew about the advance notice (of the attack), I did not."

Leaked copies of a report by intelligence officials earlier this month warned of plans by the NTJ group to attack churches. Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne has called for the resignation of the top police official for not taking any action.

By Tuesday morning, 40 people had been arrested, including three being held by the Terrorism Investigation Department, said police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara.

Police have been given emergency powers to detain and question suspects without a court order. Such powers were used extensively during Sri Lanka's civil war but have not been implemented since 2011.

It was also announced that schools and universities would be closed at least until Monday, and masses at churches cancelled until further notice. The country has been on edge with three bomb scares, including one at the US Embassy, taking place in the last 24 hours.

Police have been instructed to look out for five bikes, a cab and a van suspected of carrying more explosives.

An official said there could be additional explosives or potential suicide bombers."Right now, they are searching everywhere for possible bombs and people involved," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation. AFP, WP