A series of eight devastating bomb blasts ripped through high-end hotels and churches holding Easter services in Sri Lanka yesterday, killing at least 207 people, including dozens of foreigners.
The attacks were the worst act of violence to hit the country in the decade since the end of a bloody civil war that killed up to 100,000 people. For many in Sri Lanka, the apparently coordinated attacks brought back painful memories of life during the long-running conflict, when bomb blasts were a frequent occurrence.
Bodies lay on the ground of the church, covered in patterned scarves and white sheets, some of them stained with blood. Shattered roof tiles and shards of glass littered the floor, along with chunks of plaster blasted from the walls by the explosion.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility but the government said eight people had been arrested and investigators would look into whether the attackers had “overseas links.” The government also imposed a nationwide curfew and curbed social media access to restrict “wrong information” spreading in the country of 21 million people.
The powerful blasts, six in quick succession and then two more hours later injured hundreds.
At least two of them involved suicide bombers, including one who lined up at a hotel breakfast buffet before unleashing carnage.
By yesterday evening, the toll stood at 207 dead and 450 people injured. Police said 35 foreigners were among the dead, including British, Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese and American citizens.
Documents seen by AFP show that Sri Lanka’s police chief Pujuth Jayasundara issued an intelligence alert to top officers 10 days ago, warning that suicide bombers planned to hit “prominent churches”. “A foreign intelligence agency has reported that the NTJ (National Thowheeth Jama’ath) is planning to carry out suicide attacks targeting prominent churches as well as the Indian high commission in Colombo,” the alert said.
The NTJ is a radical Muslim group in Sri Lanka that was linked last year to the vandalisation of Buddhist statues. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, speaking late yesterday, acknowledged “information was there” about possible attacks and that an investigation would look into “why adequate precautions were not taken”.
Among the churches targeted was the historic St Anthony’s Shrine, a Catholic church in Colombo, where the blast blew out much of the roof. The Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Ranjith, described the attackers as “animals” and called on authorities to “punish them mercilessly”.
US President Donald Trump tweeted his condolences about the “horrible terrorist attacks”, and Pope Francis in his Easter address at the Vatican spoke of his “affectionate closeness with the Christian community, attacked while it was at prayer”.
Embassies in Colombo warned their citizens to stay inside, and Sri Lankan Airlines told passengers to arrive at the airport four hours ahead of flights because of ramped-up security.