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Islamic State says its fighters carried out Sri Lanka attacks

Sri Lankan soldiers inspect the damage inside St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, on April 22, 2019. Bloomberg photo by Tharaka Basnayaka

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the deadly terrorist blasts in Sri Lanka, as investigations intensified into Sunday's, April 21, coordinated attacks that killed 321 people in churches and high-end hotels.

"Those who carried out the attack that targeted citizens belonging to the alliance countries and Christians in Sri Lanka are fighters with the Islamic State," according to a statement on IS news agency Amaq carried by SITE, which tracks jihadist groups.

"Alliance countries" refers to those involved in the U.S.-led military coalition against the Islamic State in Syria, which includes 79 nations from Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, although Sri Lanka is not among them. Just last month the U.S. declared that the last swath of territory once held by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been liberated.

It's too early to say the extent of involvement -- if any -- the Islamic State group had in the planning and coordination of the Easter Sunday attacks, said Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a London-based researcher who tracks Islamic State and maintains a database of the group's archives.

"It's possible they didn't know about it in advance, and like every one else they were following various reports," Al-Tamimi said. "As it began to point more and more towards IS supporters, they felt they could claim it."

Interpol has joined the investigation to help identify potential international connections, with attention also focused on a second extremist group known as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen.

In a special session of the parliament today, State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene said investigators were probing links between the local jihadist group National Thowheed Jamath and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen. He noted the Easter Sunday bombings could have been retaliation for the terrorist attacks on two New Zealand mosques last month.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe vowed that Sri Lanka would not allow the attacks to lead to another war, referring to the three-decade civil war that ended in 2009.

"The intelligence agencies have reported that there were international organizations behind these acts of local terrorists," President Maithripala Sirisena said in a statement. "Hence, it has been decided to seek international assistance for investigations."

The government said other nations had shared intelligence ahead of the blasts. Seven suicide bombers carried out the Easter Sunday assault on churches and luxury hotels, targeting Christians and foreign tourists, it said.Read more: Sri Lanka Muslims Had Warned Officials About Group Behind Attack

Over 40 suspects were in custody, national police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said Tuesday.

An internal police memo dated April 11 warned a group called National Thowheed Jamath planned to bomb Catholic churches and the Indian High Commission, cabinet minister Harin Fernando tweeted soon after the attack. Wickremesinghe said authorities had received warnings but "not enough attention had been paid."

"There had been several warnings from foreign intelligence agencies about the impending attacks," Sri Lanka's Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said at press conference in Colombo on Monday. "Persons named in intelligence reports are among those arrested. Some named in the reports had died during attacks. We are now investigating international support for the group and their other links."

A special emergency parliament session was held Tuesday, with the country's leaders still deeply divided after six months of political infighting that's left the economy struggling.

Last October, former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa was suddenly appointed prime minister by President Maithripala Sirisena, leading to a constitutional crisis. Wickremesinghe, the deposed prime minister, was reinstated in December after a Supreme Court decision.

Sri Lanka confirmed that 31 foreigners who died in the attacks had been identified -- including citizens of India, Portugal, France, Turkey, Australia, Japan, the U.K. and U.S. -- and said 14 foreigners were still unaccounted for. Most were targeted at the Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels in the capital.

President Trump called Wickremesinghe to pledge U.S. support "in bringing the perpetrators to justice," White House said in a statement overnight.

Chinese citizens were warned against traveling to Sri Lanka, the embassy said in a statement on its website.

Billionaire fashion tycoon Anders Holch Povlsen, Denmark's wealthiest man, lost three of his four children, the Press Association reported, citing Jesper Stubkier, communications manager for Holch Povlsen's wholesale fashion business Bestseller.

The terrorist attack was a marked shift from the brutal conflict between the predominately Buddhist Sinhalese majority and mostly Hindu Tamil minority that fueled the civil war.

Catholics, split between the Sinhalese and Tamils, make up 6.5 percent of Sri Lanka's population, according to the nation's 2012 census. Buddhists account for 70 percent of the total, while Hindus and Muslims make up the rest.

In the early 1980s, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam -- known as the Tamil Tigers -- began fighting for an independent homeland in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The conflict, marked by the use of child soldiers and human-rights violations on both sides, killed more than 100,000 people before Rajapaksa's government won a decisive victory in 2009.

This article was written by Anusha Ondaatjie, a reporter for The Washington Post.

--With assistance from Bloomberg's Asantha Sirimanne.