Sri Lankan security forces raided a safe house of ISIS-affiliated terrorists in the east of the country and killed at least 15 men in an exchange of fire, the military said Saturday. Gunmen opened fire on troops when they attempted to storm the house in the town of Kalmunai, spokesman Sumith Atapattu said. "In our retaliatory fire, two gunmen were killed," he said adding that a civilian caught in the crossfire was also killed.
Meanwhile, the US State Department raised the level of its travel warning for Sri Lanka, urging citizens to reconsider visiting the island in the wake of a devastating series of suicide bombings that killed more than 250 people. The department has "ordered the departure of all school-age family members of US government employees in kindergarten through 12th grade," it said in a statement, adding that it had also authorised non-emergency personnel to leave. "Terrorists may attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets, shopping malls, government facilities, hotels, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, parks, major sporting and cultural events, educational institutions, airports, hospitals, and other public areas," it said.
In a related development, Sri Lanka's Catholic leader has said that he felt "betrayed" by the government's failure to act on warnings that could have prevented the Easter bombings, adding that services would not resume until security could be guaranteed. The government has admitted major lapses over the foreign intelligence warning that radical Islamist group National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ) was planning suicide bombings on churches.
On April 11, Sri Lanka's police chief issued an alert based on the intelligence. Neither the prime minister nor other top ministers were among the recipients. At least 253 people died when attackers blew themselves up at three churches, including two Catholic ones, and three hotels in coordinated blasts.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, said the island's Catholic church had also not been informed about a possible attack. "I felt betrayed a little bit. I felt sad," he told reporters, when asked about the warnings.
"It's a very serious lapse on the part of the security agencies that they didn't tell us about it," the archbishop added. He said he had sought an explanation from government officials but received nothing.
"They all say 'I didn't know about it. Everybody is passing the baby," Ranjith added. The government blames the NTJ for the attacks and has warned that Islamist extremists could be plotting further blasts. Sri Lanka is under a state of emergency. At least 74 people are in custody but security forces are hunting more Islamic State (IS) supporters.
ISIS has claimed it was involved, without providing clear evidence. "Due to the ongoing security situation and continuing threats... we have stopped all Sunday masses until further notice," Ranjith said.
He added that people should "stay indoors and do their prayers" and that only once the security situation had returned to normal would small services start to resume before gradually growing in size.