Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard in the rain at St. Anthony's Shrine in Colombo, April 25, 2019. Sri Lanka's Catholic church suspended all public services over security fears, and authorities urged Muslims to pray at home Friday rather than attend a ...
Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard in the rain at St. Anthony's Shrine in Colombo, April 25, 2019. Sri Lanka's Catholic church suspended all public services over security fears, and authorities urged Muslims to pray at home Friday rather than attend a ...

NEW DELHI - A radical Islamic leader suspected of playing a key role in the suicide bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka died in the attacks, according to President Maithripala Sirisena.

As the tiny country remains on high alert for more attacks, police have stepped up a hunt for dozens who are suspected of links to Islamic State. 

Meanwhile, authorities have revised the toll in the deadly blasts downward, saying 253 people were killed, not more than 350 as earlier believed. They blamed the error on the difficulty in counting bodies torn apart by the bomb blasts. 

Sri Lankan police officers perform a security chec
Sri Lankan police officers perform a security check on a truck at a roadside in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 25, 2019.

?Sirisena told reporters Friday that Zahran Hashim, a firebrand Islamic cleric from eastern Sri Lanka, is believed to have led the attack at the upscale Shangri-La hotel in the capital, Colombo, along with another suicide bomber. 

Few in the country had heard of the cleric and his local Islamist group, the National Thowheeth Jamaath, until it was named as the prime suspect in the coordinated blasts at three churches and three luxury hotels. The small, sleepy town of Kattankudy was the platform for his extremist views, incendiary speeches and hate videos calling for violence against non-Muslims, which Muslim leaders say they brought to the attention of authorities several times. 

FILE - Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena
FILE - Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena speaks during a meeting with Foreign Correspondents Association at his residence in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Nov. 25, 2018.

Police say they have arrested the group's second-in-command. 

Along with seven other men, Hashim appears on a video posted by Islamic State pledging allegiance to the group. Indian security experts say he could have been enlisted by the group, which has tried to gather recruits from South Asia. 

Although IS has claimed responsibility for the blasts, the group's involvement remains unclear. 

A key focus for both local and foreign investigators assisting the probe into South Asia's deadliest attacks is to unravel the links of the perpetrators to foreign terror groups such as IS. Although the nine suicide bombers identified so far are all Sri Lankans, it is widely believed that they had some training or support from overseas. 

Country on alert

There are growing worries about the IS shadow. Sirisena said about 140 people in the country have been identified as having links to the group. About half have been apprehended. 

Soldiers stand guard outside the Grand Mosque, day
Soldiers stand guard outside the Grand Mosque, days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter, in Negombo, Sri Lanka, April 26, 2019.

The country continues to be nervous as authorities warn that those on the run could be in possession of explosives and said that more attacks targeting religious places could not be ruled out. 

Thousands of troops have been deployed in recent days to bolster police as they carry out searches and guard mosques and churches. Authorities have urged people to pray at home instead of going to religious places for security reasons, but on Friday many Muslims headed to mosques for prayers. 

A priest arranges flowers at the site of a mass bu
A priest arranges flowers at the site of a mass burial in Negombo, Sri Lanka, April 25, 2019.

Police are on alert for retaliatory violence against the country's Muslim community which makes up 10 percent of the population. In the town of Negombo, north of Colombo, where the deadliest attack took place on a prominent church, Muslims have fled after saying they faced intimidation and threats. Many have been sheltered in a mosque and a police station. 
Admitting that an intelligence failure allowed the devastating Easter Sunday attacks to take place, Sirisena has reiterated his pledge to reorganize the security services. 

Warnings ignored

Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and police chief Pujith Jayasundara have stepped down. 

Muslim men gather outside a mosque in Colombo, Sri
Muslim men gather outside a mosque in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 26, 2019. Sri Lanka’s president has appealed to the island nation not to view its minority Muslim community as terrorists in the wake of Easter attacks that officials say were carried out by Muslim extremists.

The government has come under fierce criticism since it came to light that warnings from India about the attacks were ignored. Many have blamed a divided administration due to dissension between the president and the prime minister for the security lapse. 

The president tried to send out a message that the government is pulling together now. "We will completely control this and create a free and peaceful environment for people to live."

About 70 people have been arrested so far in connection with the attacks. That includes a wealthy and influential spice trader whose two sons and a daughter-in-law were among the nine suicide bombers arrested.