Sri Lanka under curfew after bomb blasts as death toll surpasses 200

09:16 | 22/04/2019
The Sri Lankan government has imposed a nationwide curfew after a string of bomb blasts at churches and hotels on Sunday (Apr 21) that left 207 dead, including 35 foreigners.
sri lanka under curfew after bomb blasts as death toll surpasses 200
Map of attacks on hotels in Sri Lanka. (AFP/Laurence SAUBADU/Vincent LEFAI)

At least 450 injured people have been admitted to hospital, police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera told reporters in Colombo.

The attacks were mostly targeted at high-end hotels in the capital and churches where worshippers were attending Easter services.

Social media access has also been curbed to restrict "wrong information" spreading in the country of 21 million people.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility but the government said eight people had been arrested.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said "so far the names that have come up are local," but that investigators would look into whether the attackers had any "overseas links".

Mr Gunasekera said the police were investigating whether suicide bombers were involved in all of the blasts.

In a video on his Twitter account, Sri Lanka's State Minister for Defence Ruwan Wijewardene said the country's Criminal Investigations Department is working with the police and the military to investigate the attacks.

"We believe that all the culprits who have been involved in this unfortunate terrorist incident will be taken into custody as soon as possible," he said, adding that suspects have been identified.

'A LOT OF FEAR'

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 acknowledged that "information was there" about possible attacks and that an investigation would look into "why adequate precautions were not taken".

Ethnic and religious violence has plagued Sri Lanka for decades, with a 37-year conflict with Tamil rebels followed by an upswing in recent years in clashes between the Buddhist majority and Muslims.

Catholics make up around six per cent of the island nation's population, which is a patchwork of different religious and ethnic groups dominated by Buddhist Sinhalese.

While there have been attacks on Christians, their community had been left relatively unscathed until now.

Rucki Fernando, a Christian Sri Lankan, told AFP: "We haven't experienced anything like this in the last 10 years."

"There is a lot of fear, not just in the Christian community, but among everyone," he added.

Eight explosions in hotels and churches were reported on Sunday. A police official said at least 45 people had been killed in Colombo, where three hotels and a church were hit.

Another 67 were killed in an attack on a church in Negombo, north of the capital, with another 25 dead at a church in the town of Batticaloa, in the east of the country.

The first explosions were reported at St Anthony's Church in Colombo and St Sebastian's in the town of Negombo just outside the capital.

At least 160 people injured in the St Anthony's blast had been admitted to the Colombo National Hospital by mid-morning, an official told AFP.

"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.

Shortly after those blasts were reported, police confirmed three hotels in the capital had also been hit, along with a church in the town of Batticalao, in the east of the country.

At least one of the victims was killed in Colombo's Cinnamon Grand Hotel, near the prime minister's official residence, where the blast ripped through a restaurant, a hotel official told AFP.

An official at the Batticaloa hospital told AFP more than 300 people had been admitted with injuries following the blast there.

On Sunday afternoon, police confirmed there were two more blasts in the capital.

The first of the two new blasts was reported in a hotel in the southern Colombo suburb of Dehiwala and killed at least two people, police said. The hotel was reportedly located near the national zoo.

The second was in the suburb of Orugodawatta in the north of the capital, although there were no further details on what was targeted and the number of people injured.

VICTIMS

Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed there were no Singaporean casualties after the attacks.

Police said 35 foreigners were among the dead, including American, British, Chinese, Dutch and Portuguese citizens. Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said three Indians were killed, while Washington and London also confirmed an unspecified number of their nationals were among the dead.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that "several US citizens" were killed.

"While many details of the attacks are still emerging, we can confirm that several US citizens were among those killed," he said in a statement.

"The US Embassy is working tirelessly to provide all possible assistance to the American citizens affected by the attacks and their families."

Three Danish citizens are also dead, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark.

Two Turkish citizens were killed in the attacks on Sunday, according to Turkey's state media Anadolu.

Chinese state paper People's Daily said one Chinese national was killed during the attacks, while Xinhua reported four others were injured and in a stable condition in hospital.

A Portuguese man also died, according to the nation's LUSA news agency.

Hospital sources told AFP British, Dutch and American citizens were among those killed, while Britons and Japanese nationals were also injured.

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".

President Maithripala Sirisena said he had ordered the police special task force and military to investigate who was behind the attacks and their agenda.

The military had been deployed, according to a military spokesman, and security stepped up at Colombo's international airport.

Embassies in the capital warned their citizens to stay inside, while there were chaotic scenes at Colombo airport as worried travellers who had just arrived in the country formed huge lines at the only taxi counter that was open, and watched a TV screen for updates.

Pietro Gunesekera, who works for The Kingsbury, said guests who had bookings there were being taken to other hotels while a worker manning the Cinnamon Grand's desk at airport arrivals said several foreign tourists had opted not to stay because of the attacks.

"PM (Prime Minister) met with ministers and senior military personnel; all measures taken to maintain peace," Sri Lanka's Minister of Economic Reforms and Public Distribution, Harsha de Silva, said in a tweet on his verified account.

"Security tightened. Please stay calm. Please act responsibly. Please no politics. We must all act together as Sri Lanka citizens. My condolences to all families who lost loved ones."

He said in another tweet he had been to two of the attacked hotels and was at the scene at St Anthony's Shrine, and described "horrible scenes."

"Please stay calm and indoors," he added.

Photos circulating on social media showed the roof of one church had been almost blown off in the blast.

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.

Agencies/ AFP

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