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Alleged ringleader in Sri Lanka bombings died in hotel blast, nation’s president says

Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard in front of the St. Anthony's Church in Kochchikade, where an explosion took place Sunday, April 21, 2019. More than 200 people were killed when a string of blasts ripped through high-end hotels and churches as worshippers attended Easter services. (Tharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto/Zuma Press/TNS)

The alleged mastermind behind a wave of bombings in Sri Lanka was killed in one of the blasts on Easter Sunday, according to officials.

President Maithripala Sirisena said the radical preacher, Zahran Hashim, died at the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo, BBC reported. Authorities believe he led the attack on the popular tourist spot alongside a second bomber, who has only so far been identified as “Ilham.”

Officials initially placed the death toll from the weekend attacks, which targeted hotels and churches in Colombo, at more than 300, but later revised the count to just more than 250 victims.

Authorities did not say what role Hashim specifically played in in the Shangri-La bombing — which was one of six attacks on Easter Sunday, allegedly coordinated by local extremist group, National Tawheen Jamath. According to Sri Lanka intelligence services, some 130 suspects linked to the Islamic State group were in the country and police continued to hunt the 70 or so who remain at large.

In the days after the bombings, Hashim reportedly appeared among seven other men in a video released by the Islamic State shortly after the group claimed responsibility for the blasts. The suspected ringleader was the only one to show his face in the clip.

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Sirisena confirmed police continued their search for suspects Friday, vowing that “every household in the country will be checked.”

“The lists of permanent residents of every house will be established to ensure no unknown persons could live anywhere,” he said.

Sri Lankan security forces were involved in a shootout and seized bomb-making equipment during the raids across the eastern part of the country on Friday.

Investigators additionally seized a cache of explosive from a home in Samanthurai, where they also uncovered ISIS uniforms, flags, 150 sticks of explosive Gelignite, 100,000 ball bearings and a drone camera, CNN reported.

The U.S. Embassy earlier this week issued a stern warning to citizens, encouraging them to avoid places of worship during the weekend amid fears there could be additional attacks targeting religious centers. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also expressed concern that some of the suspects “may go out for a suicide attack.”

Muslims in Sri Lanka, despite being urged to pray at home out of worry over retaliatory violence, still joined together in public for their weekly prayers, emphasizing those behind the bombings did not truly believe the teachings of Islam.

They are “not Muslims. This not Islam. This is an animal,” said Akurana Muhandramlage Jamaldeen Mohamed Jayfer, chairman of the Masjidus Salam Jumma mosque. “We don’t have a word strong enough to curse them.”

The country’s Catholic churches have canceled Sunday Masses this weekend.

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© 2019 New York Daily News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.