Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe vows his country can eliminate the threats extremists pose following the Easter Sunday attacks but admits his greatest immediate fear is that a “lone ranger” may evade authorities and blow himself up in a public place.
“The organization is broken, people are on the run,” he told CBC News in a wide-ranging interview, “but some of them do have explosives and someone may out of desperation do an act.”
Wickremesinghe said that for the next few days or weeks, he worries most that one of those individuals may not turn up in surveillance inquiries or isn’t detained before acting independently.
“My fear is that one of the guys on the run, the lone ranger, doesn’t appear and decides to … commit suicide by blasting himself in public”
Sri Lankan security officials warned lawmakers recently there could be other attacks and militants may be dressed in uniforms and using a van. A letter seen by Reuters News said there could be “another wave of attacks Sunday or Monday.”
Security and army officials are sweeping the country trying to root out any remaining members of the extremist group, which killed more than 250 people on Easter Sunday in six separate attacks.
In Negombo Monday, an army truck pulled up in front of a small supermarket. About a dozen soldiers jumped out, lining the street as five others entered the shop.
Security forces gather outside a supermarket in Negombo on Monday after searching the premises and questioning staff. (Lily Martin/CBC)
With the entire country on edge, staff at an international hotel across the street watched with worried expressions. At least one man was questioned, his identity details recorded before the authorities left the scene.
“The nets are closing in and let’s hope and pray that the security forces succeed,” Wichremesinghe told the CBC during the half-hour interview Sunday at his official residence, Temple Trees, in central Colombo.
“Then we’ve got to put into effect measures to ensure it doesn’t happen again, that information comes to be acted upon.”
The prime minister and President Maithripala Sirisena have come under intense criticism for mishandling repeated warnings from intelligence agencies, notably Indian, that an attack might be imminent.
“The security warnings were issued by the Ministry of Defence to the relevant security agencies and the circulars went down,” Wickremesinghe said. “The real issue is why were they not implemented.”
Wickremesinghe said that is being investigated.
Catholic churches across Sri Lanka remain closed and the archbishop of Sri Lanka decreed no public mass on Sunday following the leak of a security document that stated churches were a major target a week after the Easter Sunday attacks. (Lily Martin/CBC)
But pressed as to why, as prime minister, he did not know about repeated serious warnings, he accepted accountability.
“My being aware is separate from the fact that the security system had failed to implement it — some of them didn’t take it seriously.
“But yes, we have to acknowledge the fact that the government machinery was faulty.”
A personal and political rift between the prime minister and the president is being blamed by many Sri Lankans for undermining national security. The president fired the prime minister last year but was forced to reinstate him after pressure from the Supreme Court. An election is expected before year’s end.
Questioned about the ongoing feud and its possible effect on national security, Wickremesinghe said: “Look, we have cohabitation governments. You all have had coalition governments. You know how it is.
“The fact is all that has strained our cohabitation government would not have mattered if the relevant instructions were carried out and implemented properly. If the tourist hotels were aware, if the churches were aware.”
Worshippers arriving at Mount Lavinia Mosque in Colombo face a security check before being allowed to enter for Friday prayers on April 26, 2019. Muslim leaders had urged people to pray at home amid fears of retaliatory violence. (Lily Martin/CBC)
Sri Lankan Archbishop Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith criticized top leaders in government for feuding during the crisis.
“At a time when the whole country has been affected by a major catastrophe, politicians should stop finding fault with each other,” he said.
The economic impact of the attacks could cripple the tourism industry — at least for awhile.
Sri Lanka’s Tourism Bureau warned Monday that tourist arrivals in Colombo could drop by 50 per cent over the next two months, with 30 per cent fewer travellers predicted in other parts of the country, according to chairman Kishu Gomes.
‘Look at the travel advisories’
But the prime minister predicted a smaller impact long-term. Sri Lanka is in its low tourist season. He could not, however, firmly recommend that travellers come now.
“We aren’t saying not to come. Neither are we pushing them to come. It’s up to them to look at the travel advisories.
“You have to take your own decision but in the next few weeks we will stabilize the situation and then we can look forward to the next tourist season in August.”
Damage from the blast surrounds a statue of St. Jude at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo. More than 100 people were killed here in the terrorist attack on Easter Sunday. (Lily Martin/CBC)
In an otherwise dark week, Wickremesinghe said he took relief from the fact there was not significant community backlash causing more violence in the critical first three days after the attacks.
But he shook his head sadly, saying: “It’s been terrible.” People are angry and worried, recalling the ongoing violence and corresponding security measures during Sri Lanka’s nearly three decades of civil war that ended in 2009.
“We’ve gone through this before so let’s get into it, but let’s hope we get out of it quickly. I certainly don’t want 30 years to take place before the end of this,” said Wickremesinghe.
“We are not on the sidelines of jihadi terrorism. We’re in the middle of it. We are the last of our region to suffer this. India has had it, Pakistan has had it, Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka has now been affected. But we want to root it out.”
WATCH | The full interview with Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe:
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe discusses the ongoing search for suspects associated with the Easter Sunday suicide attacks that killed more than 250 people and the possibility of another attack in an interview with CBC’s Susan Ormiston. 21:15
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