Militants trigger blasts amid raid; 6 kids among 16 dead
Five days after the Easter Sunday blasts, the encounter between the army and armed militants near Kalmunai town, about 360km from Colombo, shocked the nation when 15 bodies, including those of six children and three women, were recovered from the site on Saturday morning.
Even more shocking was the recovery of suicide kits, acid bottles, detonator cords, a large cache of explosives and IS uniforms and flags from the site of the encounter which started on Friday.
With a civilian also dying in the crossfire, a total of 16 people were killed in the army operation which was assisted by police’s special task force in Ampara district in the Eastern Province. Those killed included six gunmen and their family members.
A frightened little girl, with injury marks on her face and body, was carried out of the house from where the bodies were taken out on Saturday morning.
The girl, officials said, had been with the bodies the entire night, along with a badly injured woman. It is not certain yet if her parents were among those killed in the exchange of fire.
It all started on Friday afternoon when the troops began their search operation in Sammunthurai, 5km from Kalmunai, a thickly populated town with predominantly Muslim residents, on Friday noon.
They then moved to Nintavur before proceeding to Sahindamaradu, all within a radius of 5-6 km, to check a “safe house” of suspected terrorists. Military spokesman Brig Sumith Atapattu told TOI that the terrorists triggered three explosions and began firing at the troops.
“The troops could not storm the place in the dark (on Friday) due to the heavy concentration of civilian houses,” said commander, security forces-east, Maj Gen Aruna Jayasekara.
An official military release said that at Nintavur, the troops found a brand new unregistered van, “suspected to belong to National Thowheed Jamaat leader Zahran Hashim’s brother-in-law Niyas”.
It had been purchased using cash on April 19. Zahran was the mastermind behind the Easter Sunday blasts and Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena had revealed on Friday that he was killed in the bombing at Shangri-La hotel.
Besides the girl who was found with the bodies, four more people were admitted to hospital. While a woman is critical, the girl is recovering, said the military spokesman. “The dead gunmen are yet to be identified and clearing operations are continuing,” he said.
Kalmunai Municipal Council member Samuvel Chandrasekaran told TOI that in recent months, tension had escalated between local Muslims and Tamils over conceding government land occupied by Muslim traders. “We had planned an agitation in Batticaloa on April 21 when a suicide bomber blew himself up in St Sebastian’s Church in the town,” said Chandrasekaran.
Of the 1.20 lakh people living in Kalmunai, nearly 75,000 are Muslim residents, many of them traders who own gold jewellery and garment shops. “But there was never any serious communal tension in the region,” said Buddhist monk Ranmuthukala Sangratha, who has lived in the town for 15 years.
Across the island nation, police, navy and air force troops engaged in security operations focusing on “vulnerable areas”, including the World Trade Centre and the Bank of Ceylon Tower in the heart of Colombo.
Streets appeared deserted, shops downed shutters and people kept indoors in the capital city. Security was provided to all the funerals that took place in Ketana-Negombo areas.
Sixty people were apprehended in search operations.