Ten civilians — including six children — are dead, along with six suspected terrorists, after a shootout between police and alleged militants in eastern Sri Lanka late Friday, authorities said.
At least two suspected terrorists are on the run following an explosion that witnesses told CNN turned the house “into fire.”
At daybreak, a gruesome scene was revealed at the raided house in the town of Sainthamaruthu on the country’s eastern coast — charred bodies and the roof entirely blown off during three explosions.
Among those killed is one woman who was passing on a rickshaw at the time of the raid. Police are investigating the possible relationship of the civilians to the suspected terrorists.
Earlier on Friday, authorities seized a large cache of explosives, 100,000 ball bearings and ISIS uniforms and flags from a separate garage a few miles from the shootout.
The raids come on the back of a major hunt for the perpetrators of the coordinated attacks on Easter Sunday, which killed 253 people including many worshipers attending Easter Mass services.
National Tawheed Jamath (NTJ), a local extremist group, has been blamed for the bombings, but has not claimed the attacks. ISIS claimed responsibility, but a link between the attackers and the terror group has not been proven.
One wounded suspect fled on a motorbike, and another suspected terrorist could be on the run as well, Maj. Gen. Aruna Jayasekera said.
One of the six suspected terrorists found dead has been identified as Mohamed Niyas, known to the authorities as a prominent member of the NTJ. Earlier in a statement from the army, Niyas was identified as the brother-in-law of the alleged ringleader of the Easter Sunday attacks, Zahran Hashim.
According to neighbor Aliyar Mohamed, who lives opposite the alleged bomb-making garage, the building was rented to people from Kattankudy, a town around an hour’s drive north from Sainthamaruthu.
“The owners then realized there was suspicious stuff going on here, then police came here. The place was rented out two to three weeks ago,” he told CNN.
“They (the tenants) came here claiming to start a slipper factory, and the owners saw the materials but didn’t understand what they were. But after the Colombo bombings, and with the people being from Kattankudy, they then reported them to police.”
The eastern cities of Kalmunai, Chavalakade and Sammanthurai remain under extended curfew until further notice, according to police. The curfew on these cities was imposed after the shootout.
The raids come as the Sri Lankan Army on Saturday revealed new evidence about one of the suspected Easter Sunday bombers — Abdul Lathief Jameel Mohamed, who detonated a bomb at the Tropical Inn Guesthouse on the outskirts of Colombo.
In a document used to brief the president on Friday and seen by CNN, the army says Mohamed traveled to Turkey with a friend “in the hope of entering Syria.” While the friend later joined ISIS in Syria, Mohamed returned to Sri Lanka.
Hundreds of evacuees describe night of horror
Amid an ongoing police operation at the shootout site, around 600 nearby households — mainly Muslim — have been evacuated to a local school currently under guard by security forces.
One of the evacuees, Mohamed Feleel, told CNN that he heard the first bomb blast at around 7.15pm. The father-of-10 said the explosions and gunfire continued for over four hours until eventually the village was evacuated at 6 a.m. Saturday morning.
“I was afraid, I stayed inside as there were people firing, people getting killed,” said Feleel, who has so far only been given water and biscuits at the school.
“Now at night I won’t be sleeping, I’m too afraid.”
Another witness, Kalandrsah Abdul Nasser, told CNN he was just 100 meters from the shootout and said the community was “devastated” by the incident.
He added that the raided house was initially rented by two people on April 18 who went away for a short period, and later returned with eight people, raising the “suspicions” of the tight-knit community.
“It was the people of this village that went to the police about this group,” Nasser said, comments verified by police.
During the raid, Nasser “saw a big explosion and the house turned into fire.”
Imprisonment for spreading fake news
The raid comes as the Sri Lankan government announced Friday that anyone found guilty of spreading false information may be imprisoned for up to three to five years.
It added that a number of public disturbances have been reported in several parts of the country, due to the circulation of false information in the wake of the Easter Sunday bombings.
A ban on social media that was implemented following the attacks, will remain in place due to “a lot of wrong information shared,” President Maithripala Sirisena said Friday.
Meanwhile Sri Lankan authorities have been attempting to root out “sleeper” cells that could initiate another round of attacks, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told CNN on Thursday.
“Every household in the country will be checked,” President Maithripala Sirisena told a news conference, according to a statement. “The lists of permanent residents of every house will be established to ensure no unknown persons could live anywhere.”
The heightened tensions have put Sri Lankans on edge.
Catholic Sunday masses have been suspended “until further notice” in Sri Lanka, the Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith announced Friday. He said the move will ensure the safety of the worshipers, and the church “will try to introduce some services” once better security was in place.
The government urged Muslims to stay at home for Friday prayers, and many mosques were closed. However, some mosques defied the call, opening for the midday prayers.
Both Christianity and Islam are minority religions in Sri Lanka, each accounting for under 10% of the total population. The vast majority of Sri Lankans identify as Buddhist.