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Sri Lanka lifts social media ban imposed after Easter bombings

Sri Lanka lifts social media ban imposed after Easter bombings
Sri Lankans light candles and pray outside St. Anthony's Church in Colombo. The country is limping back to normalcy after devastating bomb attacks. (Manish Swarup / Associated Press)

Sri Lanka on Tuesday lifted a social media ban that was imposed after the Islamic State-claimed Easter bombings, a sign of security easing even as a Cabinet minister said he and others had received intelligence that they could be targeted by the same group in possible new attacks.

President Maithripala Sirisena ended the blocking of 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.

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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 bombings are still at large, and on Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s health minister, Rajitha Senarathna, said he and seven other government ministers had been identified by intelligence officials as targets of possible additional suicide attacks this week, by the same Islamic State-linked group of Sri Lankan militants.

Senarathna said he stayed home Sunday and Monday upon the officials’ request. He declined to provide additional information about the source or type of intelligence.

At the same time, some of Sri Lanka’s South Asian neighbors investigated possible activities in their countries inspired by the Easter attack.

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.

Investigators said in a statement late 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 Islamic State, according to the statement.

During a search of their homes, digital devices including mobile phones, SIM cards, memory cards, pen drives, diaries with handwritten notes in Arabic and Malayalam and untitled DVDs and CDs with religious speeches were seized, the statement said. The digital material was being forensically examined.

Investigators did not provide 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 Baghdadi, the group’s shadowy leader.

In a video released Monday, a man said to be Baghdadi praised the suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, calling them “part of the revenge” that awaits the West. It was 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.

Police said a “very powerful” crude bomb thrown by unidentified assailants at a shopping complex in Dhaka late Monday injured two traffic officers and a community police officer.

According to global terrorism monitor SITE Intelligence, Islamic State 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.

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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 said 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.”

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