Sri Lanka warned of new threats at places of worship, and lowers death toll from deadly Easter Sunday blasts

Sri Lanka's top health official has revised down the death toll from the Easter Sunday attacks, while the U.S. Embassy in the island nation's capital warned people to avoid places of worship this weekend because of possible extremist attacks.

Police, government still investigating co-ordinated attacks that killed at least 250

A mass funeral service for multiple victims took place Thursday in Negombo, a coastal town located just north of the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo was the site of the deadliest attack in the Easter Sunday bombings. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Sri Lanka's top health official has revised down the death toll from the Easter Sunday attacks, while the U.S. Embassy in the island nation's capital warned people to avoid places of worship this weekend because of possible extremist attacks.

The new official figure was 253, down from an earlier 359, Deputy Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said. He blamed inaccurate data provided by morgues for the discrepancy.

Anil Jasinghe, the director general of Sri Lanka's health services, told Reuters any figure was an estimate: "It could be 250 or 260. I can't exactly say. There are so many body parts and it is difficult to give a precise figure."

The U.S. Embassy in Colombo sent a tweet Thursday night after security was stepped up in the capital city and elsewhere in Sri Lanka four days after the attacks that also left hundreds more injured.

The tweet read: "Sri Lankan authorities are reporting that additional attacks may occur targeting places of worship. Avoid these areas over the weekend, starting tomorrow, April 26th through Sunday, April 28th. Continue to remain vigilant and avoid large crowds."

Guards stand outside St. Sebastian's Church in the western coastal town of Negombo, just north of the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. It was one of the sites targeted by the bombings and remains closed indefinitely while investigators work. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told The Associated Press that suspects are still at large and may have explosives.

On Thursday, authorities in Colombo set off more controlled detonations of suspicious items, soldiers stopped and searched vehicles and some businesses advised staff to stay indoors.

During a raid Thursday in Colombo, Sri Lankan police arrested three people and seized 21 locally made grenades and six swords, a police spokesperson told Reuters. The spokesperson didn't provide further details or suggest the raid was linked to the suicide bombings at three hotels and three churches.

WATCH BELOW: 'A lot of people we know ... they're dead,' Bruno Pitiyegedara, 13, told CBC News as he was leaving a funeral held for a number of bombing victims in Negombo

13-year old talks to CBC after funeral for bombing victims

3 years ago
Duration 1:15
'A lot of people we know... they're dead,' 13-year-old Bruno Pitiyegedara told CBC as he was leaving a funeral held for a number of bombing victims.

On Wednesday, the prime minister said that the father of two of the suicide bombers, a wealthy spice trader, had been detained.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the attacks, which has resulted in the detainment of at least 76 suspects, including several foreigners. Authorities remain unsure of the group's involvement, though they are investigating whether foreign militants advised, funded or guided the local bombers. 

Sir Lankan police have issued an appeal for information about seven people, including three women wanted in connection with the attacks.

Bomb scare leads to lockdown

Sri Lankan authorities locked down the central bank and shut the road leading to the Colombo's airport because of a bomb scare on Thursday after a suspicious vehicle was spotted at a car park. The street outside the building near the World Trade Center was blocked to traffic before the security alert was lifted. And the road to the airport was reopened when the alert was declared a false alarm.

John Keells Holdings, the parent company of the Cinnamon Grand hotel, one of the sites stricken in the Easter bombings, told employees at its various hotel properties to stay inside until at least 2:30 p.m. "further to the communications we have received" in an email shared with The Associated Press.

Mourners gather for a mass funeral service at St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo on Thursday after a series of co-ordinated suicide attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka was carried out on Easter Sunday. (Lily Martin/CBC)

It was not immediately clear where the warning originated, and a police spokesperson did not respond to several calls and messages.

The streets around Dematagoda, a wealthy Colombo neighbourhood where officials say many of the bombing suspects lived, were quiet Thursday.

Investigators continued to comb through a mansion with nine front balconies where investigators said suspects detonated a ninth bomb Sunday that killed three police officers who were pursuing them. A white BMW was parked outside a garage partially blown out in the blast.

In a house on the other side of a quiet, leafy lane full of mansions, a 14-year-old boy said he used to ride bicycles and play soccer with one of the suspect's children, a 10-year-old boy who frequently visited his relatives there, and that the other children at the house were too young to play outside. He said his entire house shook when the bomb went off.

Sri Lankan police continued their search for additional explosives, detonating a suspicious item in a garbage dump in Pugoda, about 35 kilometres east of Colombo.

Sri Lanka's civil aviation authority also banned drones and unmanned aircraft "in view of the existing security situation in the country," according to a statement.

Watch: Funerals for Sri Lanka attack victims held under heavy security

Sri Lanka funerals held under tight security

3 years ago
Duration 2:51
Following the Easter Sunday bombings, the wounds are still raw as funerals are held and businesses try and re-open amid heavy security, Susan Ormiston reports from Sri Lanka.

Hobby drones have been used by militants in the past to carry explosives. Iraqi forces found them difficult to shoot down while driving out ISIS, whose members loaded drones with grenades or simple explosives to target government forces. And Yemen's Houthi rebels have used drones, most recently to target a military parade in January, killing troops.

Most victims from Sri Lanka

Most of the victims in the Easter Sunday bombings were Sri Lankan, but the Foreign Ministry has confirmed 40 foreigners died. The remains of 13 have been repatriated. Fourteen foreigners are unaccounted for and 12 were still being treated for injuries in Colombo hospitals.

Sri Lanka mourns: 'We don't know why they chose us'

3 years ago
Duration 0:18
Father Gregory Silva says Sri Lanka is a nation of love and kindness, and is struggling to cope with the aftermath of Sunday's bombings

Japan's Foreign Ministry has confirmed one Japanese national was killed and four others injured in the Easter bombings. The body of the person who died was returned to Japan early Thursday.

A top Sri Lankan official has said many of the suicide bombers were highly educated and came from well-off families.

Junior Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said at least one had a law degree and others may have studied in the United Kingdom and Australia.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said one of the bombers had been in the country on a student visa with a spouse and child before leaving in 2013.

Sri Lankan government leaders have acknowledged that some intelligence units were aware of possible terror attacks against churches or other targets weeks before the bombings. The president asked for the resignations of the national police and the defence secretary without saying who would replace them. Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando confirmed his resignation Thursday.

A group of Sri Lankans carry the coffin of a loved one on Thursday, four days after a series of co-ordinated suicide attacks ripped across the country. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Sri Lankan authorities have blamed a local extremist group, National Towheed Jamaat, whose leader, alternately named Mohammed Zahran or Zahran Hashmi, became known to Muslim leaders three years ago for his incendiary online speeches.

On Wednesday, Wijewardene said the attackers had broken away from National Towheed Jamaat and another group, which he identified only as JMI.

Father Sanjeewa Appuhamy was at the altar at St. Sebastian's Church when the bomb detonated on Easter Sunday. In the aftermath of the blast, he said he saw many people 'bleeding, weeping' and trying to find their loved ones. (Lily Martin/CBC)

With files from Reuters and CBC's Lily Martin


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