Extremist group NTJ prime suspects in Sri Lanka church attacks, Latest World News - The New Paper

Extremist group NTJ prime suspects in Sri Lanka church attacks

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Little-known Islamic extremist group had previously been linked to the vandalising of Buddhist statues

COLOMBO Before being named as prime suspects in Sri Lanka's Easter bomb suicide attacks, National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ) was linked to the vandalising of Buddhist statues.

After long wrangling with radical Buddhist leaders, suicide bomb attacks against churches and hotels would be a spectacular departure for the little-known Islamic extremist group.

Cabinet Minister and government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne yesterday said authorities believed the NTJ was behind Sunday's attacks on three churches and three luxury hotels in which 290 people died.

Authorities said 24 people have been arrested and they were hunting for links between the group and foreign backers.

"We don't see that only a small organisation in this country can do all that," Mr Senaratne said.

The Sri Lankan presidency said in a statement that "intelligence sections have reported that there are international terror groups which are behind local terrorists".

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe acknowledged that "information was there" about possible attacks and that an investigation would look into "why adequate precautions were not taken".

Telecommunications Minister Harin Fernando tweeted: "Some intelligence officers were aware of this incidence. Therefore there was a delay in action. Serious action needs to be taken as to why this warning was ignored."

Sri Lanka's police chief issued a warning on April 11, saying a "foreign intelligence agency" had reported NTJ was planning attacks on churches and the Indian High Commission.

The Soufan Center, a New York based group that monitors global security threats, said the Sri Lanka bombings bore all the "hallmarks" of "attacks by other Salafi-jihadist groups, particularly those where local groups receive foreign support".

It highlighted the Christmas Eve bombings in Indonesia in 2000, where Al Qaeda worked with local group Jemah Islamiyah, and the 2005 hotel bombings in Amman masterminded by an Al Qaeda affiliate.

Months after Buddhist riots against Muslim targets, the NTJ came to prominence in December when its followers were accused of attacking Buddhist statues in the Kegalle district.

NTJ secretary Abdul Razik has been arrested several times on charges of inciting religious unrest.

In January, Sri Lankan security forces discovered 100kg of high explosives and 100 detonators near a remote wildlife park.

While no group was accused, authorities said four Muslim radicals had been detained.

Major questions are now being asked over whether Sri Lankan police did enough to head off suicide attacks on churches.

And as tension remained high, police reported a fresh explosion as they attempted to defuse another suspected bomb found yesterday near one of the three churches targeted.

There were no further details, but police earlier also reported finding 87 bomb detonators scattered on the ground at a bus station and a nearby garbage dump.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a travel advisory, asking Singaporeans to defer all non-essential travel to Sri Lanka. - AFP