SAINTHAMARUTHU, Sri Lanka — At least 15 people were killed, including six children, in bomb blasts and gunfire as Sri Lankan security forces raided a rented home used by a group with suspected links to the deadly Easter bombings.
The dramatic confrontation late Friday came amid a nationwide security crackdown and intensive searches for suspects in numerous locations across Sri Lanka. Police have used new emergency powers to stop and question individuals and raid homes and other sites.
On Saturday morning, crime scene personnel in fluorescent vests roamed the lane collecting ball bearings, torn pieces of clothing, and fragments of flesh in Sainthamaruthu on the island’s east coast.
The body of a man shot by security forces still lay face down on the cobbled pavement.
Most of the dead — which also included six men and three women — were killed in three bomb blasts that police say were triggered inside the house. The explosions ripped holes in the roof and wall of the house and left behind charred remains.
One of the men was shot by security forces after he came into the lane and began firing a rifle, said Lucian Sooriyabandara, a local police official.
Police said the group is connected to the suicide bombers who carried out attacks on churches and luxury hotels in three cities on Easter Sunday, killing more than 250.
Earlier the same day, police raided a house about three miles from the rented home. There they found a cache of explosives, police said, plus the a black Islamic State-style flag and clothes worn by the attackers in a picture distributed by the Islamic State claiming responsibility for the bombings.
Local residents in Sainthamaruthu said the group arrived at the rented house five days ago. Residents grew suspicious when they saw the group unloading boxes and learned they were from Kattankudy, a town an hour’s drive away where Zahran Hashim, the mastermind of the attacks, was based.
Mohammad Rizwan, 31, a local shopkeeper, said he alerted a nearby traffic cop to the group’s presence early Friday evening. When the officer approached the lane, Rizwan said, the first of several explosions rang out from the house. When police and soldiers arrived, a gun battle ensued.
President Maithripala Sirisena said Friday that strict new measures were being taken to identify and track people, similar to controversial methods used during the civil war between separatist ethnic Tamils and the government that ended in 2009.
He said that about 70 individuals suspected of ties to the Islamic State had been arrested, and that another 70 suspects were still at large.
“We had to declare an emergency situation to suppress terrorists and ensure a peaceful environment in the country,” the president said. “Every household in the country will be checked” and lists of all residents made to “ensure that no unknown person can live anywhere,” he vowed.
The identities of those killed in the house, a white bungalow with a black metal gate and surrounded by a high wall, were not immediately known or released, and there was no explanation for the presence of six children, who are now dead.
But the appearance of a family group hiding in the residence bore similarities to a deadly encounter between police and the occupants of a luxurious home in the Colombo suburbs last Sunday.
After two sons of a wealthy spice merchant, M. Y. Ibrahim, were identified as being among the suicide bombers, police raided the family home. A woman inside, later identified as the wife of one of the sons, detonated a bomb as the police approached, killing herself, her unborn child, three children and three policemen.