Catholic leaders in Sri Lanka canceled Sunday Masses across the country as officials cited the possibility of more attacks on the island, nearly a week after the deadly Easter Sunday suicide bombings in churches and hotels blamed on Muslim extremists.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith asked the faithful throughout Sri Lanka to stay home for their own safety, saying, “We don't want repetitions.”
The U.S. State Department on Friday raised the travel advisory level for Sri Lanka to three out of four, meaning visitors should reconsider traveling to the country. It said, “Terrorist groups continue plotting possible attacks in Sri Lanka,” and that terrorists could again target places of worship as well as other public areas, including shopping malls, hotels, restaurants, sporting events and parks.
The U.S. Embassy in Colombo, on its Twitter account, urged people to “remain vigilant and avoid large crowds.”
On Friday, thousands of Sri Lankan security personnel were deployed across the country to places of worship, as Muslims answered the call to prayer.
"Everyone is nervous," Abdullah Mohammed, 48, told The Associated Press before prayers. "Not just the Muslims. Buddhists, Christians, Hindus — everybody's nervous."
Security forces combed the country, tracking down what they say are dozens of local militants with links to the Islamic State terror group, which claimed responsibility for the Easter attacks. A military spokesman said a gunbattle erupted Friday in Sri Lanka's Eastern Province during a search operation.
Suicide bombers killed more than 250 people Sunday in the devastating attack on churches and hotels in Colombo. Officials had earlier set the death toll at more than 350 but revised the number on Thursday, saying some bodies might have been counted twice.
Sri Lankan officials say the suspected mastermind of the attacks, Zahran Hashim, was killed in the attack on the Shangri-La Hotel.
The Daily Mirror, a Sri Lankan newspaper, reported that Hashim's sister said her parents, brothers and a sister have been missing since April 18.
President Maithripala Sirisena said Sri Lanka's police chief, Pujith Jayasundara, resigned Friday because of the security failures around the attacks.
A day earlier, Defense Secretary Hemasriri Fernando quit in the wake of the bombings, heeding calls from Sri Lanka's president for his resignation.
Sirisena had called on Fernando and Jayasundara to step down after he promised in a televised address to take stern action against officials who did not share with him the intelligence alerts that came from India days prior to the bombings.
As the government faces an outpouring of public anger over the failure to heed the warnings, senior officials admit it was a “major lapse.”
Fernando said that there had been no failure on his own part, but he resigned to take responsibility for the failures of some institutions he headed, Reuters reported.
Reports say Indian intelligence agencies sent out several warnings to Sri Lanka, and that Indian security agencies had gathered details about Islamic militant group National Towheed Jamaat, which is suspected of carrying out the attacks.