The bodies of 15 people, including six children, were discovered at the site of a fierce firefight at a home on the east coast of Sri Lanka after suicide bombers targeted approaching security forces.
A police spokesman on Saturday said three suspected suicide attackers were among the 15 dead in the shootout, which came six days after the killing of 253 people on Easter Sunday.
The three men set off explosives, also killing three women, inside what was believed to be a safe-house near the eastern town of Kalmunai on Friday night.
The town is to the south of Batticaloa, a site of one of last Sunday’s blasts that targeted three churches and four luxury hotels.
Military spokesman Sumith Atapattu said as troops headed towards the home, three explosions were triggered and gunfire began.
“Troops retaliated and raided the safe-house where a large cache of explosives had been stored,” he said in a statement.
He said the fighters were suspected members of the domestic group, National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), which has been blamed for last Sunday’s attacks.
‘This won’t stop’
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said bomb-making materials, “suicide kits”, 150 sticks of blasting gelatin, and tens of thousands of small metal balls were found. Suicide bomb vests often are packed with such balls to increase the shrapnel in the explosion, making them even deadlier.
The wife and a daughter of the suspected mastermind of Easter Sunday’s suicide attacks were among the wounded in the gun battle.
“Yes, the wife and daughter were injured in the attack,” said Mohamed Hashim Mathaniya, sister of the alleged ringleader Mohamed Zahran. “I was asked to come to identify them but I am not sure I can go, ” she told Reuters news agency.
Police officials also said the injured were believed to be Zahran’s relatives. Police on Friday confirmed Zahran died in the suicide bombing at the Shangri-La Hotel.
Major-General Aruna Jayasekera, eastern commander of the Sri Lanka Army, vowed to hunt down anyone linked to the attacks. “This won’t stop so we won’t stop either,” he said.
Reporting from the capital Colombo, Al Jazeera’s Florence Looi said the operation by security forces was one of many conducted across the island over the past week.
“It turned into a gun battle and went on for more than an hour. Search operations are still under way for more gunmen,” she said.
The government said nine homegrown, well-educated suicide bombers carried out the Easter Sunday attacks, eight of whom had been identified. One was a woman.
Police said on Friday they were trying to track down about 70 people they believe have links with Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), which claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings.
ISIL provided no evidence to back its claim that it was behind the attacks. If true, it would be one of the worst acts of violence carried out by the armed group outside Iraq and Syria.
The group released a video on Tuesday showing eight men, all but one with their faces covered, standing under a black ISIL flag and declaring their loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Fears of retaliatory sectarian violence have caused Muslim communities to flee their homes amid bomb scares, lockdowns and security sweeps.
Despite warnings against it, several mosques held services anyway on Friday.
At a mosque in Colombo, police armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles stood guard outside for hundreds of worshippers.
The Easter attackers 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,” he said.
There were also reports by some Muslims of harassment because of their religion.
A local television channel showed people on a bus asking a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf to either remove it or leave the bus. She later left the bus.
Abdul Azeez Abdul Sattar, 63, an auto-rickshaw driver, said a man in his neighbourhood refused to hire him, telling him, “You are a terrorist; you have a bomb. I won’t take your auto.”
The United States embassy in Sri Lanka urged its citizens to avoid places of worship over the weekend after authorities reported there could be more attacks targeting religious centres.
Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith told reporters he had seen a leaked internal security document warning of further attacks on churches, and there would be no Catholic masses on Sunday anywhere on the island.
Nearly 10,000 soldiers were deployed across the Indian Ocean island state to carry out searches and provide security for religious centres, the military said.
Authorities have so far focused their investigations on international links to two domestic groups they believe carried out the attacks, NTJ and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim. Both organisations were banned by the government on Saturday.
Yashwant Kumar Singh, 23, a worker from India, said he wants to go back to his homeland because he fears another attack. “If it only happened on one day, then that wouldn’t have been so difficult, but bombs are going off here every day. That is why there is an atmosphere of fear. We are feeling very scared,” he said.
Officials have acknowledged a major lapse in not widely sharing intelligence warnings from India of possible attacks.
President Maithripala Sirisena said on Friday that top defence and police chiefs had not shared information with him about the impending attacks.
He blamed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government for weakening the intelligence system by focusing on the prosecution of military officers over alleged war crimes during a decades-long civil war with Tamil separatists that ended in 2009.
Sirisena fired Wickremesinghe in October over political differences, only to reinstate him weeks later under pressure from the Supreme Court.
Opposing factions aligned to Wickremesinghe and Sirisena have often refused to communicate with each other and blame any setbacks on their opponents, government sources say.
The Easter Sunday bombings shattered the relative calm that had existed in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka since the civil war against mostly Hindu ethnic Tamil separatists ended.
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.
Most of the victims were Sri Lankans, although authorities said at least 40 foreigners were also killed, many of them tourists sitting down to breakfast at top-end hotels when the bombers struck.
They included British, US, Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals. Britain warned its nationals this week to avoid Sri Lanka unless it was absolutely necessary.