At least 207 people were killed and over 500 were injured in near simultaneous blasts that rocked eight locations, including three luxury hotels and churches frequented by foreigners, in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.
An eighth blast hit the suburb of Orugodawatta in the north of Colombo. When a police team entered a house in the Colombo north suburb, a suicide bomber blew himself up causing a concrete floor of a two-storey building to crash on them, killing three policemen in the eighth blast, police said.
Soon after the eighth blast, the government imposed curfew with immediate effect. The curfew will be in force indefinitely until further notice.
This is the biggest violence in the South Asian country since its civil war ended a decade ago. However, no group has claimed responsibility for these attacks yet.
The blasts targeted St Anthony's Church in Colombo, St Sebastian's Church in the western coastal town of Negombo and a church in the eastern town of Batticaloa around 8.45 a.m. (local time) as the Easter Sunday mass were in progress, police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said.
Explosions were reported from three five-star hotels - the Shangri-La, the Cinnamon Grand and the Kingsbury in Colombo.
Briefing reporters, Gunasekera said that one of the blasts at the Katuwapitiya (Negombo) church has signs of being what looked like a suicide attack. An unnamed official said a suicide bomber blew himself up at the restaurant of the Cinnamon Grand hotel, according to AFP.
Gunasekara said that 66 bodies were kept at the National Hospital while 260 injured were receiving treatment there and 104 bodies were placed at the Negombo Hospital and 100 injured were receiving treatment at the Hospital. "We have arrested three people on suspicion," he said.
The magnitude of the bloodshed recalled Sri Lanka's decades-long civil war, when separatist Tamil Tigers and other rebel groups targeted the Central Bank, a shopping mall, a Buddhist temple and hotels popular with tourists.
Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Ariyasinghe said at least 27 foreigners were killed in the explosions. Nearly 500 people have been injured in the blasts, police said. Local media reported that tourists from India, Pakistan, US, Morocco and Bangladesh are also reported to have been injured in the explosions.
The Shangri-La's second-floor restaurant was gutted in the blast, with the ceiling and windows blown out. Loose wires hung and tables were overturned in the blackened space.
St Anthony's Church, a Roman Catholic church in Kochchikade, Colombo, saw the highest number of casualties. The blast reportedly occurred here at 8.45 am when worshipers were attending Easter mass. Almost all the injured from this church were shifted to the National Hospital in Colombo.
Alex Agieleson, who was near the shrine, said buildings shook with the blast, and that a number of injured people were carried away in ambulances.
Blasts were reported at St Sebastian's Church in Negombo, a majority Catholic town north of Colombo, and at Zion Church in the eastern town of Batticaloa.
Around sixty-two people were killed in the blast at St Sebastian's Church.
"A bomb attack to our church, please come and help if your family members are there," read a post in English on the Facebook page of the St Sebastian's Church at Katuwapitiya in Negombo.
The explosion ripped off the roof and knocked out doors and windows at St Sebastian's, where people carried the wounded away from blood-stained pews, TV footage showed.
Photos circulating on social media showed the floor was littered with a mixture of roof tiles, splintered wood and blood. Several people could be seen covered in blood, with some trying to help those with more serious injuries.
President Maithripala Sirisena in an address said he was shocked by the explosions and appealed for calm.
Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe condemned the attack as "cowardly" and said the government was working to "contain the situation."
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.
— Ranil Wickremesinghe (@RW_UNP) April 21, 2019
The Indian High Commission in Colombo said that it was closely monitoring the situation in Sri Lanka. "We are closely monitoring the situation. Indian citizens in need of assistance or help and for seeking clarification may call the following numbers : +94777903082 +94112422788 +94112422789," the High Commission tweeted.
"In addition to the numbers given, Indian citizens in need of assistance or help and for seeking clarification may also call the following numbers +94777902082 +94772234176," it said.
Leave of all police personnel has been cancelled in the wake of blasts. Doctors, nurses and health officials who were on leave have been asked to report to work, Health Ministry sources said. The government schools have been closed for Monday and Tuesday. All state Universities have been closed until further notice. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith said all Easter masses in the Colombo District have been cancelled.
The nature of the blasts was not immediately clear and there were no claims of responsibility so far, but 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.
Sri Lankan security officials said they were investigating. Police immediately sealed off the areas.
Sri Lankan security forces in 2009 defeated Tamil Tiger rebels who had fought to create an independent homeland for the country's ethnic minority Tamils. The UN initially estimated the death toll from 26 years of fighting to be about 100,000 but a UN experts' panel later said some 45,000 ethnic Tamils may have been killed in the last months of the fighting alone.
Government troops and the Tamil Tigers were both accused of grave human rights violations, which prompted local and international calls for investigations.
With inputs from 101Reporters and agencies
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Updated Date: Apr 21, 2019 18:46:46 IST