Sri Lanka to probe 2019 bombing

FILE- In this April 21, 2019, file photo, Sri Lankan police officers inspect the site of an explosion at the Shangri-la hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Sri Lankas government will appoint a parliamentary committee to investigate allegations made in a British television report that Sri Lankan intelligence had complicity in the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings that killed 269 people. (AP Photo/Chamila Karunarathne, file)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lanka's government will appoint a parliamentary committee to investigate claims made in a British television report that officials with the South Asian country's intelligence had complicity in the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings that killed 269 people, including 42 foreigners from 14 countries.

The attacks, which included simultaneous suicide bombings, targeted three churches -- two Catholic and one Protestant -- and three tourist hotels during Easter celebrations.

Junior defense minister, Pramitha Tennakoon, told Parliament Wednesday that the Cabinet has decided to appoint a committee to probe the claims in the British Channel 4 report. He said the committee will also help witnesses come forward and testify even if living abroad.

Channel 4 interviewed a man who said he arranged a meeting between a local Islamic State-inspired group, National Thowheed Jamath, and a top state intelligence official to hatch a plot to create insecurity in Sri Lanka and enable Gotabaya Rajapaksa to win the presidential election later that year.

On Wednesday, opposition leader Sajith Premadasa called for an international inquiry into the bombing attack. "A large majority of the people are of the view that a fair local investigation has not been conducted into this attack," Premadasa said in Parliament.

The man in the Channel 4 program, Azad Maulana, was a spokesperson for a breakaway group of the Tamil Tiger rebels that later became a pro-state militia and helped the Sinhalese-dominated government defeat the rebels and win Sri Lanka's long civil war in 2009.

Maulana said he arranged a meeting in 2018 between IS-inspired extremists and a top intelligence officer at the behest of his boss at the time, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, the leader of the rebel splinter group-turned-political party.

Rajapaksa was a top defense official during the war, and his older brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had been defeated in the 2015 elections after 10 years in power.

A group of Sri Lankans inspired by the Islamic State group carried out the six near-simultaneous suicide bombings in churches and tourist hotels on April 21, 2019. The attacks killed 269 people, including worshippers at Easter Sunday services.

Fears over national security enabled Gotabaya Rajapaksa to sweep to power until he was forced to resign in mid-2022 after mass protests over the country's worst economic crisis.

Maulana said Chandrakanthan had met the brother of the leader of the extremist group in prison while the politician was detained on allegations of murder and found they could be useful in creating insecurity in the country.

He quoted Chandrakanthan as saying the group seemed "interesting" to him because they were only focused on dying, referring to the belief of some Muslim extremists that acts of perceived martyrdom can grant them paradise in the afterlife.

He said Chandrakanthan agreed to "use them" and that he later utilized his influence as a local politician, arranging for Maulana to help release Hashim by providing him with legal and financial assistance.

Once released, Hashim arranged a meeting between the extremist National Thowheed Jamath and a top intelligence official close to Rajapaksa.

Maulana told Channel 4 that he himself did not participate in the meeting, but that the intelligence officer told him later that creating insecurity was the only way to return the Rajapaksa family to power.