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Official: Sri Lanka failed to heed warnings of attacks

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  • COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankan officials failed to heed warnings from intelligence agencies about the threat of an attack by a domestic radical Muslim group that officials blame for Easter Sunday bombings which killed more than 200 people, the country’s health minister said Monday.

    The co-ordinated bombings that ripped through churches and luxury hotels were carried out by seven suicide bombers from a militant group named National Thowfeek Jamaath, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said.

    International intelligence agencies warned of the attacks several times starting April 4, Senaratne said. On April 9, the defence ministry wrote to the police chief with intelligence that included the group’s name, he said. On April 11, police wrote to the heads of security of the judiciary and diplomatic security division, Senaratne said.

    It was not immediately clear what action, if any, was taken in response. Authorities said little was known about the group except that its name had appeared in intelligence reports.

    Shortly after Senaratne spoke to reporters, a van parked near one of the bombed churches, St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, exploded, sending pedestrians fleeing in panic. While inspecting it, police found three bombs they attempted to defuse but that instead detonated. No injuries were reported.

    Also on Monday, police found 87 detonators near Colombo’s main bus depot, officials said. They declined to comment on whether they were linked to Sunday’s attacks.

    Because of political dysfunction within the government, Seranatne said, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his Cabinet were kept in the dark about the intelligence until after the attacks.

    President Maithrela Sirisena, who was out of the country at the time of the attacks, ousted Wickremesinghe in late October and dissolved the Cabinet. The Supreme Court eventually reversed his actions, but the prime minister has not been allowed into meetings of the Security Council since October.

    All of the bombers were Sri Lankan citizens, but authorities suspect foreign links, Senaratne said.

    Earlier, Ariyananda Welianga, a government forensic crime investigator, said an analysis of the attackers’ body parts made clear that they were suicide bombers. He said most of the attacks were carried out by individual bombers, with two at Colombo’s Shangri-La Hotel.

    The bombings, Sri Lanka’s deadliest violence since a devastating civil war that ended a decade ago, killed at least 290 people with more than 500 wounded, police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said.

    Two other government ministers also alluded to intelligence failures. 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.” He said his father had heard of a possible attack as well and had warned him not to enter popular churches.

    Mano Ganeshan, the minister for national integration, said his ministry’s security officers had been warned by their division about the possibility that two suicide bombers would target politicians.

    Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, said the attacks could have been thwarted.

    “We placed our hands on our heads when we came to know that these deaths could have been avoided. Why this was not prevented?” he said.

    Earlier, Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardena described the blasts as a terrorist attack by religious extremists, and police said 13 suspects had been arrested, though there was no immediate claim of responsibility.

    In the civil war, the Tamil Tigers, a powerful rebel army known for its use of suicide bombers, was crushed by the government in 2009, and had little history of targeting Christians. While anti-Muslim bigotry has swept the island in recent years, fed by Buddhist nationalists, the island also has no history of violent Muslim militants. The country’s small Christian community has seen only scattered incidents of harassment in recent years.

    The explosions — mostly in or around Colombo, the capital — collapsed ceilings and blew out windows, killing worshippers and hotel guests in one scene after another of smoke, soot, blood, broken glass, screams and wailing alarms.

    A morgue worker in the town of Negombo, outside Colombo, where St. Sebastian’s Church was targeted, said many bodies were hard to identify because of the extent of the injuries. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

    Nilantha Lakmal, a 41-year-old businessman in Negombo, went with his family to St. Sebastian’s for Easter Mass. He said they all escaped the blast unscathed, but he remains haunted by images of bodies being taken from the sanctuary and tossed into a truck.

    At the Shangri-La Hotel, a witness said “people were being dragged out” after the blast.

    “There was blood everywhere,” said Bhanuka Harischandra, a 24-year-old from Colombo and founder of a tech marketing company. He was heading to the hotel for a meeting when it was bombed. “People didn’t know what was going on. It was panic mode,” he said.

    Most of those killed were Sri Lankans. But the three bombed hotels and one of the churches, St. Anthony’s Shrine, are frequented by foreign tourists, and the ministry of tourism said 39 foreigners from a variety of countries were killed.

    The U.S. said “several” Americans were among the dead, while Britain, India, China, Japan and Portugal said they, too, lost citizens.

    The streets were largely deserted Monday afternoon, with most shops closed and a heavy deployment of soldiers and police. Stunned clergy and onlookers gathered at St. Anthony’s Shrine, looking past the soldiers to the stricken church.

    The Sri Lankan government initially lifted a curfew that had been imposed during the night but reinstated it Monday afternoon. Most social media remained blocked Monday after officials said they needed to curtail the spread of false information and ease tension in the country of about 21 million people.

    Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said he feared the massacre could trigger instability, and vowed to “vest all necessary powers with the defence forces” to take action against those responsible.

    The scale of the bloodshed recalled the worst days of the civil war, when the Tamil Tigers, from the ethnic Tamil minority, sought independence from the Sinhalese-dominated country. The Sinhalese are largely Buddhist. The Tamils are Hindu, Muslim and Christian.

    Sri Lanka, off the southern tip of India, is about 70% Buddhist. In recent years, tensions have been running high between hard-line Buddhist monks and Muslims.

    Two Muslim groups in Sri Lanka condemned the church attacks, as did countries around the world, and Pope Francis expressed condolences at the end of his traditional Easter Sunday blessing in Rome.

    Six nearly simultaneous blasts took place in the morning at the shrine and the Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels in Colombo, as well as at two churches outside Colombo.

    A few hours later, two more blasts occurred just outside Colombo, one at a guesthouse where two people were killed, the other near an overpass, Atapattu said.

    Also, three police officers were killed during a search at a suspected safe house on the outskirts of Colombo when its occupants apparently detonated explosives to prevent arrest, authorities said.

    Authorities said a large bomb had been found and defused late Sunday on an access road to the international airport.

    Air Force Group Captain Gihan Seneviratne said Monday that authorities found a pipe bomb filled with 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of explosives. It was large enough to have caused damage in a 400-meter (400-yard) radius, he said.

    Harischandra, who witnessed the attack at the Shangri-La Hotel, said there was “a lot of tension” after the bombings, but added, “We’ve been through these kinds of situations before.”

    He said Sri Lankans are “an amazing bunch” and noted that his social media feed was flooded with photos of people standing in long lines to give blood.

    ___

    Associated Press journalists Gemunu Amarasinghe in Negombo, Sri Lanka, Rishabh Jain in Colombo and Sheila Norman-Culp in London contributed to this report.

    Bharatha Mallawarachi And Krishan Francis, The Associated Press





















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    National

    Canada-China relations hit ‘rock bottom’ and at ‘freezing point’: Chinese envoy

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  • OTTAWA — China’s ambassador to Canada says the bilateral relationship is now at “rock bottom” compared to any time since diplomatic ties were first established decades ago.

    In prepared text for a speech Thursday, Lu Shaye said he’s saddened Canada-China relations are at what he called a “freezing point.”

    Lu’s remarks come at a time of heightened tensions following the December arrest of Chinese telecom executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on an extradition request by the United States.

    The Huawei executive’s arrest has enraged China, which has since detained two Canadians on allegations of endangering Chinese national security, sentenced two Canadians to death for drug-related convictions and blocked key agricultural shipments.

    Lu did not mention Meng’s arrest — but he said the China-Canada relationship is now facing serious difficulties.

    He said China has long valued its relationship with Canada, particularly since it was one of the first Western countries to establish diplomatic ties with the Asian country.

    “For clear reasons, the current China-Canada relations are facing serious difficulties and are situated at the rock bottom since the two countries have established diplomatic relations,” said a copy of Lu’s speech, which was posted on the Chinese Embassy’s website.

    “It saddens us that the current China-Canada relations are ‘at a freezing point’ and face huge difficulties. The knots shall be untied by those who got them tied.”

    He continued by urging Canada to view China’s development in a “fair and objective” manner and to respect its concerns. Lu also warned Canada to “stop the moves that undermine the interests of China.”

    In recent months, Beijing’s envoy has used strong words when talking about the relationship. In January, he told Canadian journalists that Meng’s arrest was the “backstabbing” of a friend and said it was evidence of white supremacism.

    Lu also warned of repercussions if the federal government bars Huawei from selling equipment to build a Canadian 5G wireless network.

    He made the remarks in Toronto at an event hosted by the Globe and Mail. The document said former prime minister Jean Chretien was in attendance as was Darryl White, chief executive of BMO.

    The Canadian Press

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    Environment

    Keep guard up against hurricanes in 2019, as risk remains potent: forecaster

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  • HALIFAX — It has been years since a major tropical storm wreaked havoc in Canada, but the Canadian Hurricane Centre is warning against complacency.

    The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its hurricane outlook Thursday, predicting nine to 15 named storms this season, with four to eight becoming hurricanes and two to four being major hurricanes.

    Bob Robichaud of the Canadian centre noted that’s similar to last year’s hurricane season, when only two storms hit Canada, including post-tropical storm Chris, which made landfall in Newfoundland in July 2018.

    However, Robichaud warns that some Atlantic Canadians may be forgetting storms like post-tropical storm Arthur, which snapped trees and caused massive power outages in 2014, and hurricane Juan’s widespread wrath in 2003.

    And he reminded journalists attending a briefing in Halifax about hurricane Michael, which flattened parts of the Florida panhandle last October.

    The Halifax-based centre has created a fresh smart phone app, and recommends people begin tracking storms as soon as they start and then monitor for shifts in direction and intensity.

    “What we advocate is for people to really stay in tune with weather information because the forecast can change as the storms are approaching,” Robichaud said.

    Robichaud says studies show that complacency levels rise about seven years after a storm like hurricane Juan, and that as a result people do less to prepare.

    “People tend not to take any preparedness action if they haven’t had any kind of hurricane in recent years,” said Robichaud, a warning preparedness meteorologist.

    “For us it’s been five years since any major impactful storm … so it’s even more important to take the necessary precautions to get ready.”

    The Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo has published a simple guide for Canadians on basic measures to take to prepare in particular for flood risk from extreme weather.

    The centre has repeatedly pointed out that without basic measures, basement flooding can cause tens of thousands of dollars in damage during hurricanes.

    Its publications include a Home Flood Protection Program that begin with such simple steps as testing sump pumps, cleaning out eaves troughs and maintaining backwater valves.

    More advanced measures include removing obstructions from basement drains and creating grading to move water away from homes.

    The hurricane season runs from June 1 to early November.

    Robichaud said hurricanes tend to “feed on” warmer waters, and as result the centre is closely monitoring those trends.

    The meteorologist said as summer progresses it’s projected the water will warm in the eastern Atlantic and become warmer than average.

    In addition, Robichaud said the Atlantic Ocean continues to be in an overall period of high hurricane activity that hasn’t yet come to the end of a cycle.

    — Follow (at)mtuttoncporg on Twitter.

    Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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