Sri Lankan Muslim women banned from wearing veils in emergency law

Muslim women in Sri Lanka will no longer be able to veil their faces under an emergency law ordered by President Maithripala Sirisena that bans all kinds of face coverings that may conceal people's identities.

The law takes effect on Monday, eight days after the Easter bombings of churches and hotels that killed more the 250 people in Sri Lanka.

Dozens of suspects have been arrested but local officials and the U.S. Embassy in Colombo have warned that more militants remained on the loose with explosives.

Life on the South Asian island nation has been tense for people of all faiths.

The decision came after the Cabinet had proposed laws on face veils at a recent meeting.

It had deferred the matter until talks with Islamic clerics could be held, on the advice of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

People gather around a television in a cafe in Sri Lanka Credit: Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

Sri Lanka’s Catholics celebrated Mass in their homes by a televised broadcast on Sunday as churches across the island nation shut over fears of militant attacks, a week after the Islamic State-claimed Easter suicide bombings killed over 250 people.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, delivered a homily before members of the clergy and the country’s leaders in a small chapel at his Colombo residence — an extraordinary measure underlining the fear still gripping this nation of 21 million people.

“This is a time our hearts are tested by the great destruction that took place last Sunday,” Mr Ranjith said.

“This is a time questions such as, does God truly love us, does He have compassion towards us, can arise in human hearts.”

In a rare show of unity, President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa attended the Mass.

Their political rivalry and government dysfunction are blamed for a failure to act upon near-specific information received from foreign intelligence agencies that preceded the bombings that targeted three churches and three luxury hotels.

All Sri Lankan churches were asked to ring bells on Sunday while the lamp lighting takes place.

The US Embassy in Colombo has warned against attending any service at a place of worship this weekend.

In the eastern district of Ampara on Sunday, at least 15 people died after Sri Lankan security forces carried out a raid on a safehouse used by the militants linked to the Easter Sunday bombings.

A shoot-out began on Friday night after police tipped off soldiers about a suspected safe house near the eastern Sri Lankan town of Sammanthurai.

At least three explosives were set off and multiple shots fired.

Police say six children are among the dead and at least three others were injured in the melee.

A four-year-old girl injured in the safehouse raid is taken to hospital. Credit: AP

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said some of the dead will likely be militants who blew themselves up.

So-called Islamic State group claimed three of the militants who blew themselves up.

In a statement carried by the extremists’ Aamaq news agency, so-called IS identified the bombers by their noms du guerre as Abu Hammad, Abu Sufyan and Abu al-Qa’qa.

It said they opened fire with automatic weapons and “after exhausting their ammunition, detonated … their explosive belts”.

One civilian is known to have died in the attack.

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said a woman and a 4-year-old child found wounded after the gun battle have been identified as the wife and daughter of Mohamed Zahran's, the leader of the local militant group blamed for the attack.

In the town on Sunday, soldiers guarded St Mary Magdalen’s Church, where a sign on the gate said the church and the school would be closed until May 6.

A nearby mosque also had soldiers stationed outside.

Police officers display a flag in Arabic Credit: Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

At the main police station in Ampara, an outdoor stage now holds what police recovered after the firefight.

The IS-aligned militants had created a bombmaking factory at the home, complete with laboratory-style beakers and thick rubber gloves.

Bags of fertiliser, gunpowder and small ball bearings filled boxes.

Police found gallons of acids, used to make the fire of the blast more lethal.

Police also recovered religious tracts in Tamil glorifying suicide bombings, saying they granted the attacker direct entrance to heaven.

The government on Saturday formally banned two extremist groups purportedly connected to the attacks, allowing officials to confiscate their property, presidential spokesman Dharmasri Ekanayake said.

The government, crippled from a long political crisis between the president and prime minister last year, promised swift action to capture militants still at large.

Mr Sirisena said about 140 people had been identified as having links to so-called IS.

Police confirmed that Zahran died in the suicide bombing at the Shangri-La Hotel.

Zahran appeared in a so-called IS video claiming responsibility for the coordinated assault, and authorities in both Sri Lanka and Australia confirmed links between so-called IS and the attack.