All day people were coming in and out of the house with the pale-pink walls, and neighbours were becoming suspicious. An elder in the village of the eastern Sri Lankan city of Kalmunai was summoned to confront the men who had rented the property a few weeks before.
The discussion soon became tense, and a tall, well-built man whom the elder did not recognise walked out of the house carrying an automatic weapon. “You have no business being here,” he said, according to the elder, firing a few rounds into the air and sending neighbours fleeing.
By the early hours of Saturday, 15 people were dead, including three children, and the walls of the house were blackened by the force of three explosions from the suicide bombers who had been cornered inside.
Reuters reported on Saturday that a woman and child injured in the fighting were the wife and daughter of Mohammed Zahran Hashim, the extremist preacher identified as the leader of the terrorist cell responsible for killing at least 253 people in a string of bombings of churches and luxury hotels. Police sources said the woman was in a serious condition.
The 90-minute gun battle in the city, about seven hours’ drive from the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, is part of an ongoing hunt for accomplices and sympathisers of the suicide bombers that has led to dozens of arrests and controlled explosions of suspicious vehicles and packages.
Sri Lankan leaders have estimated there are at least 70 people still at large, “some capable of exploding themselves”, the country’s prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, told the Observer. Both the US and India stepped up their travel warnings for nationals seeking to visit Sri Lanka on Saturday.
The house in Kalmunai had been rented by a man claiming to be a telecommunications engineer, the landlord, who asked not to be named, said. He had paid cash, but unusually, had not asked for a discount for doing so. Money had not appeared to be a problem.
On Friday night a civilian was killed in the crossfire between police and the men inside and at least three others were injured, police said.
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