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The Latest On The Easter Sunday Terrorist Attacks In Sri Lanka


So a number of arrests in Sri Lanka, and the government there has named an Islamist militant group it believes carried out yesterday's attacks. For more on that group, we called on NPR's Lauren Frayer. She reports on South Asia from Mumbai.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: So Sri Lanka's health minister came out of an emergency government meeting and named this group, calling it the National Thawahij (ph) or Thawahid Jaman (ph). We couldn't quite understand how he pronounced it. But he called it a local domestic Muslim group.

It's not a famous group. It's not a household name. It did first make headlines for vandalizing Buddhist statues. It was reportedly involved in some clashes two years ago near where one of the church bombings was yesterday.

CORNISH: But vandalizing statues is very different from the scale of the attack that we saw this weekend.

FRAYER: Right. I mean, what we saw was spectacular coordinated attacks. And Sri Lanka's Cabinet spokesman said, this couldn't have been done without international help. He said this was not confined to a local Sri Lankan group. I mean, look at the targeting of churches. Your thoughts immediately go to al-Qaida or ISIS, these, you know, big global extremist networks. We don't have a claim of responsibility here to help us decipher this.

CORNISH: We're seeing some reporting that the government may have had some forewarning about these attacks but that word never got out. What more have you learned?

FRAYER: So that's what many politicians coming out of this emergency meeting today said, that there were warnings about this local Muslim group weeks in advance, but that they weren't raised to the highest level of government and that the prime minister was not made aware of those threats.

The prime minister himself seemed pretty angry. He called the security response to those warnings inadequate. That may be why officials have been able to say pretty quickly that all the suicide bombers were Sri Lankan nationals. They may have had some clue as to who these people are - were beforehand.

CORNISH: All right. Lauren, let's step back for a moment. When most of us think of Sri Lanka, maybe we know the long civil war that finally ended about a decade ago, but that civil war did not involve Christians. Is that right?

FRAYER: So that conflict was started with a separatist insurgency by ethnic Tamils. It was a secular conflict. Ethnic minority Tamils - mostly Hindu - were fighting for independence from ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists, who make up the majority of the country - around 70 percent of Sri Lanka. It was a bloody 26-year civil war. There were many tens of thousands of people killed. But as you said, it ended a decade ago.

Sri Lanka was just about to celebrate 10 years of peace. At the height of this conflict, there were bombings like this. They did happen in the capital Colombo at shopping malls, hotels popular with tourists. But violence like this has not been the norm for a long while.

CORNISH: Similarly, the Muslim community - is there any connection there in terms of violent groups?

FRAYER: There's really been no history of violent Muslim extremism in Sri Lanka. And so if this is a Muslim extremist attack, it would be unprecedented. I mean, this is - this illustrates the ethnic and religious makeup of Sri Lanka. As I said, it's a majority Buddhist country, about 70 percent. But it has significant Hindu, Muslim and Christian minorities.

And the interesting thing about the Christian community, which seems to be targeted with these bombings at churches on Easter Sunday, is that the Christian community really straddled the conflict during the civil war. You have Christians who are ethnic Tamils. You also have Christians who are ethnic Sinhalese. So they really were sort of outside and kind of a group that could have bridged the conflict and did.

Today, we saw, you know, funerals are under way for these victims. And we saw the funeral for a 13-year-old girl. Her father is a Muslim, and her mother is Catholic. And that just shows you the kind of mixed families Sri Lanka has.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer in Mumbai, India. Lauren, thanks for your help.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.