COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- A Sri Lankan defense official said Tuesday that an initial investigation has determined the Easter bombings were carried out in retaliation for the shooting attacks at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 50 people dead last month.
Junior defense minster Ruwan Wijewardene's statement to Parliament, which convened for the first time since the Sunday bombings against churches and high-end hotels, was the first indication from officials that the attackers, including seven suicide bombers, were motivated by events beyond this island nation's borders.
Officials raised the death toll in the bombings to 321, with hundreds wounded. The day began with a three-minute period of silence at 8:30 a.m., the time of the first bombing.
Mass burials were taking place at St. Sebastian's church in Negombo, a majority Catholic town north of the capital, Colombo. More than 100 congregants were killed when a bomber blew himself up during Easter Mass. It was the deadliest of the six suicide bombings, which also targeted a Catholic church in Colombo, a Protestant church in the eastern city of Batticaloa, and three five-star hotels in central Colombo.
Authorities are investigating whether the extremist group, National Thowheeth Jamaath, worked with or was inspired by international terrorist networks. Wijewardene did not offer evidence to support the connection with Christchurch.
The government's claims have elicited deep skepticism among terrorism experts.
Many argue that the skill and coordination of the attacks are far beyond anything exhibited by National Thowheeth Jamaath, which had previously been linked to spreading hate speech on social media and vandalizing icons of Buddhism, the country's predominant religion.
Sri Lanka's unstable coalition government has also traded blame over the failure to intercept the assailants, with some ministers accusing intelligence and security agencies of neglecting to act on information from foreign allies, including India, indicating a possible terrorist attack.
"It is highly unlikely that there is any link to the New Zealand attacks," said Jonah Blank, a political scientist who covers counter-terrorism and Asian affairs at Rand Corp. "The bombings in Sri Lanka were highly complex and extremely sophisticated. Operations like these typically take far longer (to plan) than the five weeks since the Christchurch bombings."
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Blank said the claim seemed like "misdirection" by the Sri Lankan government as it grapples for the first time with an attack of this magnitude.
"Whichever group is responsible is likely trying to stir up hatred between Christians and Muslims worldwide," Blank added.
President Maithripala Sirisena imposed a partial state of emergency Tuesday to give law enforcement agencies the power to detain and question people without warrants. Some social media sites including Facebook and WhatsApp remained blocked for most users as officials tried to clamp down on rumors.
(Special correspondent Munza Mushtaq contributed to this report.)
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