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Sri Lanka blasts: Timing of 'barbaric' explosions indicate coordinated attack; president, PM urge public to not believe 'false news'

Colombo: For the foreseeable future, Sri Lankans will remember Easter Sunday — a day Catholics the world over set aside to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ — for the resurrection of the fear and angst they had been trying to banish over the past decade.

On Sunday, 21 April, 10 years since the 30-year-long civil war ended in the country, several explosions ripped through various parts of Sri Lanka, including three luxury hotels in Colombo and three packed Catholic churches, killing hundreds of innocent people and injuring scores more. As many as 215 people were killed in the blasts, including 35 foreign nationals who were from India, Belgium, China, the United Kingdom and the United States, and at least 450 were injured.

So far, authorities have arrested seven suspects in connection with the blasts, with State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene confirming that a majority of the attacks were the work of suicide bombers. There is no confirmation yet on whether the perpetrators belonged to any particular outfit, and no group has claimed responsibility for the blasts so far.

 Sri Lanka blasts: Timing of barbaric explosions indicate coordinated attack; president, PM urge public to not believe false news

Security personnel and investigators at St Sebastian's Church in Katuwapitiya, Negambo. A Gamage/101Reporters

The chaos began on Sunday morning when six blasts hit three churches — St Anthony's Church in Kochchikade, Colombo, St Sebastian's Church in Katuwapitiya, Negombo, and Zion's Church in Batticaloa on the island nation's East Coast — and restaurants serving Easter breakfast at three five-star hotels — Shangri-La, Cinnamon Grand and The Kingsbury on Colombo's scenic Galle Face Green stretch.

Eyewitness accounts confirmed that each blast was set off roughly around 8.45 am — the first indication that it was a coordinated attack. The clock tower of St Anthony's Church stopped dead by the explosion at 8.45 am stands as a dark memento of the tragedy.

The seventh blast was reported around 2.15 pm in Dehiwala at the much smaller Tropical Inn hotel, where two people were killed. Soon after, even as the police were investigating a tip-off, an eighth explosion brought down a housing complex in Dematagoda. Three police officers were killed in the blast.

President Maithripala Sirisena issued a special statement condemning the attacks and also tightened security across the country. Expressing his shock and dismay over the blasts in Sri Lanka, the president called on the public to remain calm and assist authorities in investigating the explosions. He also appealed to the people to not be misled by false news and speculation, giving his assurance that authorities were taking every necessary measure.

Shattered glass panels at Shangri-La Hotel. A Gamage/101Reporters

Shattered glass panels at Shangri-La Hotel. A Gamage/101Reporters

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also issued a statement, saying: "I strongly condemn the cowardly attacks on our people today. I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong. Please avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation. The government is taking immediate steps to contain this situation."

Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa said: "It is absolutely barbaric to see such violent attacks on such a holy day. Whoever is behind these attacks must be dealt with immediately. My thoughts and prayers are with the families that lost loved ones and all of Sri Lanka. We will not tolerate such violence, such acts of terrorism, of cowardice within our borders once again. We will stand together and rise up against it as one voice. We will stand united as a nation."

The roof and interior of the St Sebastian's Church in  Katuwapitiya, Negambo, blew up due to the impact of the explosion. A Gamage/101Reporters

The roof and interior of the St Sebastian's Church in Katuwapitiya, Negambo, blew up due to the impact of the explosion. A Gamage/101Reporters

Not long after the president issued his statement, all social media platforms, including WhatsApp and Viber, were blocked in Sri Lanka in a bid to quell the spread of fake news and unverified information. An all-island curfew soon followed, around 3.30 pm, to be in effect until further notice.

Meanwhile, the Presidential Secretariat declared 22 and 23 April government holidays, and Minister of Education Akila Viraj Kariyawasam announced that all schools would be closed for the next two days and State universities were to be shut down indefinitely.

A special meeting of the security council was convened on Sunday afternoon, which included the prime minister, State Minister of Defence, Chief of Defence Ravindra Wijegunaratne, the heads of the tri-forces and Inspector-General of Police Pujith Jayasundara. The Sri Lankan Parliament will also come together for an emergency meeting on Tuesday, 23 April.

Injured being moved from the site of a blast at Dematagoda, Colombo. A Gamage/101Reporters

Injured being moved from the site of a blast at Dematagoda, Colombo. A Gamage/101Reporters

Moreover, as people waited in serpentine queues at the National Blood Bank, in a symbol of enduring solidarity and national unity, the agency was forced to issue a notice requesting donors to refrain from visiting the banks as too many had already donated blood within the day.

An eyewitness to the bombing at St Anthony's Church said that initially, he thought the explosion was caused by a gas leak or a transformer bursting, but the screams from inside the church and the sight of people running out suggested otherwise.

"I was walking to the shop around 8.30 am when we heard a loud bang from the church, and pieces of debris came flying out. Then I heard the screams, and I realised something was terribly wrong," Philip Rajasingham said, adding that he went inside to help, but all he could see was bodies flung across the pews at the church and blood everywhere.

Security personnel cordon the entrance to Shangri-La Hotel. A Gamage/101Reporters

Security personnel cordon the entrance to Shangri-La Hotel. A Gamage/101Reporters

Head of the National Peace Council Jehan Perera said it was hard to determine the motive behind the attacks.

"If this is an internationally connected terror attack, then it could very likely be religiously motivated. However, if it is a local and homegrown attack, then it is unlikely that it was religiously motivated because the tension between the communities in Sri Lanka is not at that sort of intensity to warrant such merciless action."

Perera added that the first step towards caution for Sri Lankans is to remain calm and keep the country peaceful to avoid instigating any animosity between communities.

"This is a very tragic incident and seems to have been very carefully planned as it would have required proper organisation. We will have to see what the investigations reveal. At this time, the best thing to do would be to keep the country peaceful and not whip up animosity between communities."

The authors are freelance writers and members of 101Reporters

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Updated Date: Apr 22, 2019 08:02:52 IST