The bodies of 15 people, including six children, were found at a building in Sri Lanka’s eastern Ampara district after an “explosion” early on Saturday, according to a military spokesman.
The explosion, Brigadier Sumith Atapattu said, followed an overnight gun battle between security forces and suspects linked to the Easter Day bombings at the building. “We believe they set off the explosives following the gunfight,” he told The Hindu .
Three suspected jihadists died in the gunfire, while three others are believed to have blown themselves up, also killing six children and three women in the process, according to the police.
One civilian was killed in the firing, and five others who were injured were taken to hospital, Brigadier Atapattu said, confirming that no one from the security forces was killed.
The operation, which began around 7 p.m. on Friday, and continued till early morning on Saturday, was carried out around the Sammanthurai, Sainthamaruthu and Nintavur areas, all located within a 10-km-radius in Ampara, a Muslim-majority district.
Based on a tip-off, troops surrounded “a safe house” used by suspected terrorists on Friday evening. The suspects opened fire, the Army spokesman said, and the troops “retaliated and raided the safe house.”
Explosives, detonators, gelignite sticks, acid bottles, detonating cords, ISIS flags, suicide kits and military uniforms were seized from the safe house.
The development comes in the wake of Sri Lanka’s heightened search for suspects linked to the Easter Day serial blasts that claimed over 250 lives last Sunday.
Sri Lanka said a local radical Islamist group and its affiliates were behind the attacks that the Islamic State also claimed on Tuesday.
On Saturday, President Maithripala Sirisena banned the local National Thawheed Jammath (NTJ) and Jamathei Millathu Ibraheem (JMI), under Emergency Regulations.
Steps are being taken to ban other ‘extremist organisations’ operating in Sri Lanka, a statement from his office said. “We did not expect suspects to be residing among us. It was a major shock,” said Y.M. Hanifa, president of the Sainthamaruthu Jummah Mosque.
Along with 100 families, Mr. Hanifa too was evacuated to a nearby school early on Saturday, for safety and to enable troops to conduct a thorough search in their villages. “We didn’t know these people. They were tenants at some homes. They were all outsiders,” he told The Hindu on Saturday.
The police have nabbed over 90 suspects.