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Sri Lanka blasts: 207 killed in explosions at churches, hotels; attack comes in backdrop of religious intolerance

Several explosions took place at three churches and three hotels in Sri Lanka on Sunday, as crowds congregated for Easter Sunday mass.

The first explosion was reported at St Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade, Colombo. The other two blasts followed in the next half-hour, at the St Sebastian Church in Katuwapitiya, Negombo (35 kilometres from Colombo), and at the Zion Church in Batticaloa (315 kilometres from Colombo).

Explosions also took place at three luxury hotels in the capital – the Kingsbury, the Shangri-La and Cinnamon Grand.

Security around the churches was immediately tightened, and police spokesperson Ruwan Gunasekara urged the public to refrain from congregating at the blast sites, as this was impeding emergency responders.

A smaller blast took place at a hotel in Dehiwela, opposite the National Zoo, killing two individuals. Government officials have not yet confirmed whether this blast has been connected to the others.

 Sri Lanka blasts: 207 killed in explosions at churches, hotels; attack comes in backdrop of religious intolerance

A relative of a victim of the explosion at St. Anthony's Shrine, Kochchikade church, reacts at the police mortuary in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Reuters

An eighth blast was reported at a house in Dematagoda, Colombo at around 3.30 pm, killing three of the police officers who had arrived at the scene to investigate, based on a tip. State television network Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation was present at the scene. They claimed that the attacks were planned at a house in Dematagoda.

Four suspects were arrested at the site, and three others were taken to hospital.

Police curfew was imposed with immediate effect at around 4.30 pm in the evening, and will last until 6 am on Monday.

At 4.52 pm, senior journalist Dharisha Bastians tweeted a statement from State Minister for Defence, Ruwan Wijewardene, who confirmed the arrest of seven suspects in connection with these attacks. He added that six of the attacks (targeting the churches and hotels) were suicide bomb blasts, carried out by a single group. Whether the government will declare a state of Emergency will be decided after his meeting with President Maithripala Sirisena on Monday. Wijewardene earlier also claimed that action will be taken to "stop activity of all extremist groups."

The police's media unit confirmed the toll at 207 (7 of whom are foreign nationals) at 5.30 pm, with over 450 injured. The president has stated that costs for the funerals of all the deceased will be borne by the State.

Violence against minority religious groups and their places of worship has been on the rise since the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka. One week ago, a church centre in Anuradhapura came under attack while their Palm Sunday service was underway. Mosques and churches have regularly come under attack by extremist Buddhist groups, and have been logged in detail by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka. Just last year, a series of riots across the hill country district of Kandy in March saw several mosques destroyed by mobs. In 2014, similar violence against Muslim places of worship took place in Aluthgama. Perpetrators of these incidents continue to enjoy impunity.

Misinformation on social media with regard to the identity of the perpetrators and their motivations has been widespread. The government has temporarily blocked Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber until the investigations are concluded. This is the second time that this government has blocked social media in response to violence in the country. During anti-Muslim violence in Digana last year, these apps were temporarily blocked and internet speeds slowed in the affected area. Journalists and data researchers pointed out that the block didn’t stop hate speech and misinformation from spreading on social media, while it did hamper coordination efforts of those working on the ground.

The perpetrators of the recent attacks have not been identified, and there have been no claims of responsibility for the multiple blasts. While these, therefore, cannot be linked to violence in the country’s recent history, it is important to remember that the attacks took place against a backdrop of increased religious intolerance in Sri Lanka.

In the wake of the blasts, national hospitals close to the sites have been responding to treat injured victims, and to account for those who have passed away. Citizens have been donating blood in response to a call from the National Blood Bank in such numbers that they were eventually turned away as stocks had been filled. Several ministers from both the government and the Opposition have condemned the attacks, and stated that all necessary action will be taken. While these initial responses are heartening, it is important that prosecutions follow a thorough investigation process, and the suspects are brought to book.

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Updated Date: Apr 21, 2019 22:59:54 IST