Colombo:Sri Lanka declared a nationwide curfew after suicide bombers carried out a string of well-planned deadly explosions, mostly in Colombo, on Easter Sunday leaving 192 dead and 470 injured in the island’s bloodiest day since the civil war ended a decade ago.
Starting around 8.30 a.m. when the first blast ripped apart the St Anthony’s Shrine at Kochchikade here during Easter Mass, five more powerful explosions followed, hitting a total of three luxury hotels in Colombo and also St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, 30 km from here, and the Zion Church in the eastern district of Batticaloa, 250 km east of Colombo.
Just as authorities thought they had the situation under control, another blast went off in the afternoon near a restaurant close to the Dehiwala zoo in Colombo, killing two persons, and the Colombo neighbourhood of Dematogoda killing another three persons.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke on phone with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, called the terror attacks “cold-blooded and pre-planned” barbarism and offered all help from New Delhi.
No one claimed responsibility for the bloodbath but AFP reported that Sri Lankan Police chief Pujuth Jayasundara had issued a nationwide alert 10 days ago warning that suicide bombers planned to hit prominent Catholic churches.
The Daily Mirror newspaper quoted the findings of initial investigations as saying that the first six major blasts were caused by Islamist suicide bombers and added that two of them had checked a day earlier into the Shangri-La Hotel, one of the three hotels targeted in Colombo.
It said that the investigators who broke into Room No 616 “had recovered materials used by radical” Islamist extremists. The Mirror said it was not clear if the bombers were Sri Lankans or foreigners.
Authorities said that 35 foreigners were among the dead but their nationalities were not clear.
Besides Shangri-La, the other hotels hit were Cinnamon Grand, located near the official residence of the Prime Minister, and Kingsbury Hotel.
A Sri Lankan journalist, V. Thanabalasingham, told IANS over telephone that a sense of panic had gripped Colombo, which had given up its overbearing security apparatus ever since the Tamil Tigers were crushed in May 2009, leading to a decade of peace.
Photos and videos circulating on social media showed the roof of one church had been almost fully blown away in the blast. The floor was littered with a mixture of roof tiles, splintered wood and blood, media reports said.
Many people could be seen covered in blood. Some helped those with more serious injuries. Ambulances, their sirens wailing, rushed the dead and seriously injured to hospitals — once a familiar sight in Colombo.
Minister of Economic Reforms Harsha de Silva described the carnage. “Horrible scenes. I saw many body parts strewn all over,” he said.
President Sirisena urged the public to be calm and cooperate with the authorities to conduct swift investigations into the blasts. “I am shocked and saddened by the situation.”
The government had imposed indefinite curfew across the nation and has temporarily blocked Facebook and Instagram to curb the spread of fake news.
AFP quoted the police warning as saying that a foreign intelligence agency had reported that the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), a Muslim group blamed for attacks on Buddhist shrines, was planning to carry out suicide attacks against prominent churches as well as the Indian High Commission in Colombo.
Although Christians form only around 7 per cent of the Sri Lanka’s mainly Buddhist population, they are found both in the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil communities.
Xinhua news agency reported that the death toll in the multiple blasts had risen to 185 even as two fresh explosions occurred in two Colombo neighbourhoods in the afternoon.
The deadly explosions rocked at least three luxury hotels and a church each in Colombo, in Katana, some 50 km north of the capital, and in the eastern province of Batticaloa around 8.45 a.m. when hundreds were gathered to celebrate Easter.
The state-run Daily News newspaper put the fatalities at 138 and said at least 402 were injured. Many of the injured were said to be in serious condition. But other news outlets gave varying casualty figures, ranging from 70 to 100.
Minister of Economic Reforms Harsha de Silva, who visited a few of the attack sites, described the carnage.
“Horrible scenes. I saw many body parts strewn all over. Emergency crews are at all locations in full force. (…) We took multiple casualties to hospital. Hopefully saved many lives,” Efe news quoted the Minister as saying.
Images circulated in local media showed the magnitude of the explosion in at least one of the churches, where the ceiling had been partially destroyed, and corpses were strewn around among the rubble, Efe reported.
Rescuers desperately looked for survivors.
The Minister said that some of the casualties were foreigners.
President Maithripala Sirisena, in a special message which was read out on local news channels, urged the public to remain calm and cooperate with the authorities to conduct swift investigations into the blasts, reported Xinhua news agency.
“I am shocked and saddened by the situation that has occurred. Investigations have been launched to look into what conspiracy is behind these heinous acts. Please remain calm and do not be fooled by rumours,” Sirisena said.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Christians in Sri Lanka had been celebrating the Easter Sunday, an important festival marking the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the culmination of week-long festivities.
Christians form around 7 per cent of the Sri Lankan population, with the Buddhists accounting for around 70 per cent, followed by Hindus and Muslims.
Sri Lanka’s dragging civil war involving the government and the Tamil Tigers ended in May 2009, leading to a decade of peace.
(With inputs from IANS)