COLOMBO: Muslim neighbors and the cleric in charge of the local mosque had tipped off the Security Forces about the existence of a safe house taken on rent by the followers of the Islamic State in the Muslim-majority town of Sainthamarudu in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province, locals said.

In a gun battle between the Security Forces and terrorists holed up in a van and the safe house, and following three explosions triggered by the holed-up terrorists on Friday night, 15 people including six men , six women and three children, were killed, police said.

Two suspected terrorists, believed to be suicide bombers have decamped and a hunt is on for them, police said.

The safe house in question was taken on rent by the followers of a Tawheed Jamaat led by Moulvi Mohamad Zahran Hashim ,who was influenced by the Islamic State (IS), indoctrinated as he was by the Jamaat ul Mujahideen India (JMI), which is an affiliate of the IS.

Zahran was one of the suicide bombers who died in the attack on Shangri-La hotel in Colombo on Easter Sunday.

A woman and a child who were injured in the incident have been hospitalized. No injuries or casualties have been reported among the Security Forces.

Four bodies suspected to be that of the suicide bombers have been recovered at the site of last night’s explosions and gun battles.

Reports had claimed that there could be one or more suicide bombers inside the safe house either killed or in hiding police the army told Reuters on Friday night.

Troops at another town Nintavur detected a brand new unregistered van, suspected to be belonging to the National Towheed Jamat’s leader, Zahran’s brother-in-law, named Niyas.

Following detection of two ID cards, initial reports confirmed the said van had been bought in Akkaraipattu on cash on April 19. .

Meanwhile, during another search operation carried out on Friday evening in Sammanthurai area, Army troops recovered ISIS flags, literature and some other objects from a place, said to be the terrorist organization’s place for oath-taking.

According to the Military Spokesman, Brigadier Sumith Atapattu, combined troops recovered explosives, detonators, gelignite sticks, acid bottles, ISIS flags and backdrop, suicide kits,and military uniforms, from the safe house in Sammanthurai.

The dead gunmen are yet to be identified and clearing operations are continuing.

A curfew was imposed within Kalmunai, Chavalakadai and Sammanthurai police areas last night until further notice.

Meanwhile, in Erakandy in Trincomalee district police have arrested a person with 51 water gel explosive sticks and215 detonators. In Colombo a ruling United National Party Municipal Councilor, Noordeen Mohamad Thajuddeen has been arrested for possessing 46 swords.

H.M.Ameer, head of the Abdul Jawad Ali Waliullah Trust, said that when the Security Forces rounded up the Sainthamarudu safe house, gunmen in an un-registered van opened fire on them and the Security Forces returned the fire.

“The Muslims here, including the local mosque head, had completely rejected the extremist propaganda which Zahran’s group had been indulging in since 2017. Local people, including their social leaders and clerics, had complained about the Zahran group’s propaganda that non-Muslims have to be exterminated and that those dying in fights against Kafirs, would go straight to heaven,” Ameer said.

Ameer, who is a key personality among the Sufis of the nearby all-Muslim town of Kathankudy, said: “People had participated in demonstrations against the Zahran’s Tawheed Jamaat and its propaganda. I ,along with 12 others, had filed a case against Zahran seeking a ban on his activities in 2017. I had met Ministry of Defense officials in Colombo with recordings of Zahran’s speeches and the literature he had produced. But all to no avail.”

Rifthi Ali, a freelance journalist now in Sammanthurai said that local people are livid with Zahran’s men for taking a house on rent and working against the interest of the landlord and the enter area.

“Muslims of Sri Lanka consider Zahran and his ilk to be fit to be driven out of Sri Lanka. If there was not such a feeling of discomfort with him, neighbors of the safe house and the local mosque head would not have told the police about the house and its occupants,” Ameer added.

Mohamed Shoib, a political commentator and a media advisor to Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen said that as recently as January 3 this year, the All Ceylon Jamiaythul Ulema (ACJU) had complained to the Defense Ministry about the activities of Zahran’s Tawheed Jamaat, through the good offices of the Governor of the Western Province, Asad Sally. But again to no avail he regretted.

“99% of Lankan Muslims are resolutely opposed to terrorism. How can we support them when Islam condemns killing and suicide to be un-Islamic? And here they have children with them,” Shoib pointed out.

On whether the ugly incident in Samanthurai could have been prevented, people this correspondent talked to said that while stern is called for under the circumstances for the security of the people at large, government should see to it that the Security Forces do not act with impunity.

Hilmy Ahamad, of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka (MCSL) said that the Security Forces had no option but to storm the safe house. He pointed out that the tip off was given not by non-Muslims but by peace-loving Muslims.

“However, the new laws should be exercised with caution so that they are not used to harass people in peace time, “ Ahmad said.

A well-known human rights activist who is currently on a government committee on missing persons, said that the while tough measures are needed now to track down the conspirators involved in the Easter Sunday carnage, any law allowing disposal of bodies without an inquest should be rejected.

“It could give rise to disappearances which have been a major problem in Sri Lanka since the 1980s,” the activist who did not want to be named, said.

The liberal think tank, Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) said in a statement that it “fully appreciates the need for a robust and compelling response from the government in the face of terrorism, so as to reassure and restore public confidence in institutions and a swift return to political, economic, and social normalcy.”

“However, in moments like these, there is a danger of executive overreach, as demonstrated by our own past experience of protracted conflict, and that of other countries facing the threat of terrorism. While constitutional democracies accommodate the need for expanded executive powers in order to cope with emergencies, and accordingly the need for some regulated abridgement of individual liberties and normal checks and balances, it is critical to ensure that emergency powers are not allowed to completely extinguish the balance between freedom and security.”

“In particular, in equipping the state with adequate powers to respond to the threat of terrorism, we emphasize that the following points require serious attention if this is to be done consistently with the democratic values underpinning our Constitution:-

That no ethnic or religious minority is alienated and marginalized through indiscriminate association with any terror groups in conflict with the state, and ensuring proactive measures to maintain communal harmony and safety;

That the exercise of emergency powers does not exceed the limits of the law and the Constitution, which limits have been expanded by the declaration of a state of emergency;

That emergency powers lawfully exercised have the effect of restricting fundamental rights only to the extent permitted by the Constitution and strictly necessary in a democratic society;

That administrative safeguards are in place to prevent or minimise arbitrary, unreasonable, or disproportionate practices, and in particular safeguards against the use of torture or other inhumane treatment;

That attempts are not made to evade necessary judicial and parliamentary oversight over the exercise of emergency powers; and

That all emergency measures are consistent with Sri Lanka’s obligations under international law, and in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Judged against these constitutional standards, the emergency regulations passed by parliament day give cause for concern.

In the scope of offences and penalties, the extraordinary powers adversely affecting personal liberty and property, the potential for the imposition of undue and illegitimate restrictions on the freedoms of expression and assembly, and in the absence of effective oversight mechanisms, the regulations can be seen as pushing the boundaries of what is constitutionally permissible.

“We earnestly hope therefore that these powers are exercised with prudence and restraint, and that the current state of emergency is terminated as soon as exigencies permit.”