Lanka bans face veils after Easter bombings

Wednesday 01st May 2019 02:48 EDT

COLOMBO: In the aftermath of the tragic Easter Sunday bombings, President Maithripala Sirisena announced new regulation that have banned Muslim women in Sri Lanka from wearing any form of face veils in public form. The new rule was announced on Sunday, a week after the coordinated blasts hit three churches and three luxury hotels, killing over 250 people and injuring over 500. In a statement, the President's office said, “The ban is to ensure national security... No one should obscure their faces to make identification difficult.”

Sirisena used emergency powers to prohibit the use of face coverings of all sorts which is an obstacle to ensure the identity of the people and a threat to national and public security. The order clarifies that the key criterion for establishing the identity of a person is the need to clearly expose the face. It also adds that the President took the decision to establish a peaceful and cohesive society which does not provide inconvenience to any community people as well as ensure national security.

Sri Lanka has a sizeable Muslim population, with just under 10 per cent of the country's 21 million following the religion. Only a small number of women are thought to wear the face-covering niqab or the burqa. The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, an organisation of Muslim clerics in Sri Lanka, was highly critical of the President's decision. Hilmy Ahmed, the group's vice-president said, “It is the stupidest thing to do. Three days ago we took a voluntary decision regarding this. The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulema told all Muslim women not to wear face veils for security reasons. If they wanted to wear a veil, then they were told not to come out.”

They added, “We see this as a reflection of the conflict between the President and the Prime Minister. We strongly criticise the decision. We will not accept the authorities interfering with the religion without consulting the religious leadership.” This isn't the first time a country has banned the burqa. Several countries have permanently banned full-face veils in public places, including France, Belgium and Denmark. Chad, Gabon and the Republic of Congo in Africa also have restrictions in place.

Gun battle kills 15

The bodies of 15 people, including six children, were discovered at the site of a fierce gun battle on the east coast of Sri Lanka, a military spokesman said. The shootout between troops and suspected Islamist militants erupted in Sainthamaruthu in Ampara district, to the south of the town of Batticaloa, site of one of the blasts. A police spokesman said that three suspected suicide bombers were among the 15 dead after the shootout. Islamic State claimed responsibility for last Sunday's attacks, all but one of which were in the capital, Colombo. The government has said they were carried out by nine well-educated Sri Lankans, eight of whom have been identified.

Authorities have warned there could be more attacks targeting religious centres following the bombings, which shattered the relative calm that Buddhist-majority Lanka had enjoyed since a civil war against Tamil separatists ended a decade ago.

Islamic banners and uniforms found

The east coast battle broke out when troops heading towards a suspected militant safe house were repulsed by three explosions and gunfire, military spokesman Sumith Atapattu said. "Troops retaliated and raided the safe house where a large cache of explosives had been stored," he said.

He said the militants were suspected members of the domestic Islamist group National Towheed Jama'at (NTJ), which has been blamed for last Sunday's attacks. Bomb-making materials, dozens of gelignite sticks and thousands of ball bearings were found in a search of a separate house in the same area along with Islamic State banners and uniforms, the military said. Police said they were trying to track down 140 people they believe have links with Islamic State.

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. They have detained at least 76 people, including foreigners from Syria and Egypt, in their investigations so far.

Mastermind died in blast

Lankan President said that NTJ leader Zahran Hashim, believed to have masterminded the blasts, died in the attack on a popular tourist hotel. Hashim, whose incendiary speeches and photographs with alleged suicide bombers were widely circulated on social media, had been on the Interpol watch list. There was no clarity, however, on the part played by Hashim in the Shangri-La bombing, one of the six bomb attacks on Easter Sunday.

In a statement, Sirisena's office, quoting intelligence agencies, said at least 130 to 140 Muslim youths with links with the Islamic State were hiding in Sri Lanka and police were searching for them. More than 70 people have been arrested, he said. “I will stamp out IS from Sri Lanka. Our police and security forces are capable of achieving this,” Sirisena said.

US, Britain warn its nationals

The US State Department and Britain have warned its nationals against travel to Lanka, warning that terrorist groups were continuing to plot attacks.

Death toll lowered to 253

Lanka authorities have lowered the death toll to 253 from the earlier figure of 359. In rolling back the number of dead from 359, a top health ministry official said that the blasts had damaged some bodies beyond recognition, making identification difficult.

13 Indians among victims

The number of Indians killed in the blasts rose to 13. They were among at least 38 foreigners who lost their lives. Addressing an emergency session of Parliament, Sri Lanka’s state minister of defence, Ruwan Wijewardene, citing “preliminary investigations”, said the bombings were in “retaliation to the attack against Muslims in Christchurch”.

Amaq details exact movements of bombers

Although the IS didn’t directly mention Christchurch, its statement strengthens the view that the bombings were intended to be revenge for the massacre of Muslims in New Zealand last month. The Sri Lankan government had named the NTJ and also said the scale and sophistication of the attacks clearly pointed to the hand of an international network.

Amaq had reported the names and pictures of three IS fighters involved in the bombings after they were released by a pro-IS telegram channel. The names released by the channel were Zahran Hashim aka Abu Ubaida, Abu Al-Mukhtar and Abu Al-Barra. The others have been identified as Abu Khalil, Abu Hamza, Abu Mohammed and Abu Abdullah. These are identities which IS terrorists are typically given after they have pledged allegiance to the terror outfit chief Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

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