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Sri Lanka calls bombers ‘well educated' and warns of ongoing threat

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Nine suicide bombers from mostly educated, middle-class backgrounds carried out the attacks in Sri Lanka that killed more than 350 people on Easter Sunday, authorities said Wednesday as they warned of an ongoing terrorist threat and continued making arrests.

[COLOMBO] Nine suicide bombers from mostly educated, middle-class backgrounds carried out the attacks in Sri Lanka that killed more than 350 people on Easter Sunday, authorities said Wednesday as they warned of an ongoing terrorist threat and continued making arrests.

The bombers, one of whom was a woman, were all Sri Lankan, officials said. But authorities were continuing to investigate whether the Islamic State group, which on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the coordinated blasts, had provided more than symbolic support, such as by training the attackers or building the bombs.

Authorities said the number of people arrested had risen to 60 and that other individuals involved in the attacks remained at large. As the FBI arrived to assist in the investigation, the US ambassador, Alaina Teplitz, said there were believed to be "ongoing terrorist plots," and Sri Lanka's state minister of defence said the danger had not passed.

"There could be still a few people out there," the minister, Ruwan Wijewardene, said at a news conference. "Right now, we are asking people to be vigilant. Within the next few days, we will have the situation totally under control."

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Mr Wijewardene said the leader of the attacks was believed to have been among the suicide bombers, one of whom was a woman. He did not name any of the bombers, and he did not specify whether the leader among them was Mohammed Zaharan, head of an obscure Islamist extremist group that authorities have said was behind the attacks.

"They're quite well educated people," Mr Wijewardene said of the attackers. "We believe that one of the suicide bombers studied in the UK and then later on did his postgraduate in Australia before coming back to settle in Sri Lanka."

He said the bombers were from different parts of Sri Lanka, but he did not elaborate.

Officials said they were still trying to determine whether the attackers had links to the Islamic State. The terror group has released a video showing Zaharan leading masked, black-clad disciples as they pledged allegiance to the organisation.

The Islamic State has not provided any further proof for its claim of responsibility and Mr Wijewardene said investigators were trying to determine whether the group had provided training or financing for the attacks. He said they had found no evidence to suggest that the bombers had traveled to the Middle East to fight for the Islamic State.

The bombings Sunday occurred nearly simultaneously at three churches and three hotels. In the last couple of days, security near the bomb sites has tightened. Schools have been shut until Monday and the postal department is requiring that items sent by mail be wrapped in front of workers at post offices.

Police said they found a "suspicious bag" at a restaurant in the city of Negombo, near St Sebastian's Church, where around 100 people were killed Sunday. The bag was destroyed Wednesday in a controlled explosion.

Many mourners Wednesday focused their anger on the government and the security forces, as grief morphed into rage. All morning, people gathered near St Sebastian's Church in Negombo to mourn the deceased at a mass burial.

One distraught woman could not stop crying and shouting at police. She blamed them for not acting on prior intelligence warning of the attacks.

An Indian security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said India had interrogated a man last year who was linked with the Islamic State and who said he was inspired by Zaharan's videos on social media. That intelligence prompted an investigation into Zaharan and it was part of the context for an April 11 warning sent to Sri Lankan authorities about the possibility of church bombings.

The warning was never relayed to church officials and Sri Lankan authorities apparently took no action against members of Zaharan's group, despite specific information provided by the Indians.

During a national address Tuesday, President Maithripala Sirisena tried to deflect criticism that he was at least partly responsible for the security failure. He acknowledged that "there was an intelligence report about the attack" but said he was "not kept informed" about it by his subordinates.

On Wednesday, Mr Sirisena asked Hemasiri Fernando, the defence secretary, and Pujith Jayasundara, the inspector general of police, to resign, according to a senior official at the president's office.

Many lawmakers dismissed assertions that the president would not have known about the threat memo, saying that blame for the security lapse should go all the way to the top.

Sarath Fonseka, a member of parliament who was an army chief in the last stage of Sri Lanka's civil war, told parliament Wednesday that he knew about the memo, as did the national intelligence chief. He said it was "obvious that the letter would have gone to the president."

NYTimes