With thousands of guards deployed across the country to provide security for places of worship, Muslims in Sri Lanka answered the call to prayer Friday, less than a week after the deadly Easter Sunday suicide bombings in churches and hotels in the island nation's capital blamed on Muslim extremists.
"Everyone is nervous," 48-year-old Abdullah Mohammed 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.
The archbishop of Colombo told reporters Friday there will be no Sunday Masses anywhere on the island.
The U.S. Embassy in Colombo has advised people to avoid places of worship in Sri Lanka, citing Sri Lankan reports that additional attacks may occur.
"Continue to remain vigilant and avoid large crowds," the embassy said Thursday on its official Twitter account.
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. #srilanka pic.twitter.com/4kjd57Dcty— U.S. Embassy Colombo (@USEmbSL) April 25, 2019
The warning comes days after a devastating attack on churches and hotels on Sunday when suicide bombers killed more than250 people. Officials had earlier set the death toll at more than 350 but revised the number Thursday, saying some of the bodies may 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, reports that Hashim's sister says that her parents, brothers and a sister have been missing since April 18.
Advance intel on attacks
President Maithripala Sirisena said Sri Lanka's police chief Pujith Jayasundara resigned Friday because of the security failures around the attacks.
On Thursday, 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 bombing of churches and luxury hotels.
As the government faces an outpouring of public anger over the failure to heed the warnings, senior officials admit it has been 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 Thowfeek Jamaath (NTJ), which is suspected of carrying out the attacks.