Sri Lanka revises bombings death toll down by 100

Health ministry says 253 people were killed, blames difficulty in counting 'badly mutilated' bodies.

    Sri Lanka revises bombings death toll down by 100
    People light candles at the funeral of a 13-year-old victim of a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

    Authorities in Sri Lanka have lowered the death toll in a spate of Easter bombings by more than 100, saying the difficulty in identifying body parts at blast scenes led to the earlier inaccurate number.

    The new number of people killed was 253, down from an earlier total of 359, the health ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

    "Many of the victims were badly mutilated ... There was double counting," it said, adding the lower toll was reached once all autopsies were completed and cross-referenced with DNA samples.

    The suicide bomb attacks on three churches and four hotels have exposed an intelligence failure, with accusations that warnings had not been acted on and feuds at the top levels of government had undermined security cooperation.

    Hemasiri Fernando, the defence secretary, resigned over the failure to prevent the attacks, saying he was stepping down to take responsibility for institutions he ran. But he said there had been no failure on his part.

    Authorities have blamed two local Muslim groups, National Thowheed Jamaat and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) also claimed responsibility, though officials are still investigating the extent of any involvement. 

    The government said there were nine suicide bombers, eight of whom had been identified. One was a woman. Officials said some of those involved in the coordinated blasts were well-educated and well-off financially.

    More than 70 people, including several foreigners, have been arrested since Sunday, including the father of two of the alleged suicide bombers - one of Sri Lanka's wealthiest spice traders.

    Earlier on Thursday, police for the first time identified seven people they were looking for and appealed to the public for help in finding them.

    Photographs, apparently casual snapshots, posted with a wanted notice showed young bearded men and three young women wearing headscarves.

    Bomb scares

    Tensions remained high, with the capital on alert because of bomb scares.

    The central bank was briefly locked down and the road to the capital's airport was shut for part of the day.

    Office workers in Colombo's business district were asked to go home early, police said, to avoid vulnerable throngs of people at rush hour. City-centre restaurants also shut early.

    Religious leaders, meanwhile, cancelled public prayer gatherings amid warnings of more such attacks, along with retaliatory sectarian violence.

    MHA Haleem, Sri Lanka's Islamic affairs minister, appealed to Muslims to avoid gathering for Friday prayers and instead urged them to pray at home.

    The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, an association of Islamic scholars, urged women not to "hinder the security forces in their efforts" by wearing face veils.

    People come to the site of a mass burial to pay their respects to victims of Easter Sunday bombings [Athit Perawongmetha/ Reuters]

    Niroshan Perera, a priest overseeing funerals of some of the dozens of people killed in the blast at St Sebastian's church in Negombo, just outside Colombo, said Catholic churches in the city all closed and cancelled Mass on the government's advice.

    Perera said an official had warned him that police were still searching Negombo for two armed suspects.

    "Little bit, we are nervous," he said.

    In an unusually specific warning, the US embassy in Sri Lanka said places of worship could be hit this weekend. "Sri Lankan authorities are reporting that additional attacks may occur targeting places of worship," the US embassy warned on Twitter. "Avoid these areas over the weekend, starting tomorrow."

    The UK advised its citizens against traveling to the island country.

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    The bombings shattered the relative calm that has existed in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka since a civil war against mostly Hindu ethnic Tamil separatists ended 10 years ago.

    Sri Lanka's 22 million people include minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Until now, Christians had largely managed to avoid the worst of the island's conflict and communal tensions.

    Amid fears of a surge of communal tension, some Muslims have fled the Negombo region.

    Hundreds of Pakistani Muslims have left the port city, crammed into buses, after threats of revenge.

    "The local Sri Lankan people have attacked our houses," one of them, Adnan Ali, told Reuters News Agency on Wednesday, as he prepared to board a bus.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies