Sri Lanka lifts social media ban imposed after Easter blasts even as neighboring countries investigate possible threats

The government had said it was seeking to curb the spread of misinformation when it blocked social media in the wake of the April 21 bombings at churches and luxury hotels that killed 253 people


                            Sri Lanka lifts social media ban imposed after Easter blasts even as neighboring countries investigate possible threats

By BHARATHA MALLAWARACHI and KRISHAN FRANCIS

COLOMBO:  Sri Lanka on Tuesday lifted a social media ban that was imposed after the Easter bombings, a sign of security easing even as some of the island nation's South Asian neighbors investigated possible activities in their countries inspired by the attack.

President Maithripala Sirisena ended the block on Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, and other popular sites, but asked the public to "act in a responsible manner" on social media, according to a government statement. The government had said it was seeking to curb the spread of misinformation when it blocked social media in the wake of the April 21 bombings at churches and luxury hotels that killed 253 people.

Sri Lankan officials have warned that suspects linked to the attacks are still at large. In India, the country's National Investigative Agency said it had arrested a 29-year-old Indian man who identified himself as a follower of Mohammed Zahran, the Sri Lankan militant who officials say led the Easter attacks.

People light candles and pray outside St. Anthony's Church in Colombo on April 30 (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

Investigators said in a statement late on Monday that Riyas A., also known as Riyas Aboobacker, was plotting a similar suicide attack in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Three other people were brought in for questioning about suspected links to IS, according to the statement. Investigators did not provide any details about Aboobacker's alleged plot but said he admitted during questioning that he had followed Zahran's vitriolic online speeches and videos for more than a year.

Authorities initially blamed the Easter attacks on Zahran and his followers. Then the Islamic State group on April 23 released images of Zahran and others pledging their loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group's shadowy leader. In a video released on Monday, a man said to be al-Baghdadi praised the suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, calling them "part of the revenge" that awaits the West. It was al-Baghdadi's first filmed appearance in nearly five years.

Authorities in Bangladesh on Tuesday were investigating the Islamic State group's claim of responsibility for an explosion in the capital that injured three police officers.

A Sri Lankan woman covers her candle with her hands after lighting it outside St. Anthony's Church in Colombo, Tuesday, April 30, 2019 (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

Police said a "very powerful" crude bomb thrown by unidentified assailants at a shopping complex in Dhaka late on Monday that injured two traffic officers and a community police officer. According to global terrorism monitor SITE Intelligence, IS claimed the attack on "apostate policemen" without producing evidence.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church's top official in Sri Lanka said the government's ban on the niqab, a black veil made of thin fabric, often with a small opening for a Muslim woman to see through, was a good security step, but didn't go far enough to protect the faithful from another attack.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, has been a vocal critic of the government's apparent failure to share near-specific intelligence on the Easter plot and some of the suspects involved. Ranjith told reporters on Tuesday that reports from Negombo, where around 100 people were killed on Easter Sunday in a bombing at St. Sebastian's Church, indicated that Sirisena's pledge to have Sri Lankan security forces check every household in the country wasn't being upheld.

"We are still not satisfied," Ranjith said. "There is a fear among the people that this is only a camouflage, just hoodwinking everybody."