Sri Lanka presidential hopeful vows Easter blast probe

Sri Lanka People's Front party presidential election candidate and former wartime defence chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa looks on during an election campaign rally. REUTERS Photo

A former Sri Lankan defense chief who is a front-runner in next month's presidential election said he'll order a fresh probe into the Easter Sunday blasts that killed 263 people by appointing a presidential commission if he wins.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said the commission would be set up on a request made by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, a top leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Sri Lanka.

Ranjith has previously called for an independent and transparent commission to investigate the attack, which was blamed on Islamic extremists.

Rajapaksa, a powerful defense official in the government of his brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is a favorite to win the Nov. 16 election, in which national security has become the focal point.

While addressing an election rally on Saturday, Rajapaksa also pledged to bolster national security by improving intelligence services and also to provide legal cover to the intelligence officers, according to a statement released from his media office on Sunday.

Rajapaksa is a hero to many Sri Lankans — especially ethnic majority Sinhalese — for his crucial role in ending the prolonged civil war in this Indian ocean island nation a decade ago. His popularity is on the increase after the Easter attacks that killed 263 people and wounded 500 others.

Ranjith has previously said he has no faith in the two investigations into the blasts — one by a presidential commission and the other by a parliamentary committee.

President Maithripala Sirisena has said he was kept in the dark on intelligence about the planned attacks and vowed to "take stern action" against officials who failed to share it. He later appointed a presidential commission to probe the attack.

Following the attack, national police chief Pujith Jayasundara was suspended and former Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando resigned. Both were later arrested after the presidential commission found grounds to charge them with dereliction of duties and criminal negligence. 

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