Attack on Three Churches, Luxury Hotels in SriLanka on Easter
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
At least 138 people were killed and hundreds more hospitalized from injuries in near simultaneous blasts that rocked three churches and three luxury hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter, a security official told The Associated Press, in the worst violence in the South Asian country since its civil war ended a decade ago.
Two of the blasts were suspected to have been carried out by suicide bombers, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak with reporters. Worshippers and hotel guests were among the dead, the official said.
Worst violence since civil war
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.
No one has claimed responsibility for Sunday’s blasts.
St. Anthony’s Shrine and the three hotels where the blasts took place are in Colombo, and are frequented by foreign tourists. A National Hospital spokesman, Dr. Samindi Samarakoon, told AP they received 47 dead, including nine foreigners, and were treating more than 200 wounded. Local TV showed damage at the Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels.
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.
A police magistrate was at the hotel to inspect the bodies recovered from the restaurant. From outside the police cordon, several bodies could be seen covered in white sheets.
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.
Other 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. St. Sebastian’s appealed for help on its Facebook page.
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.
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 U.N. initially estimated the death toll from 26 years of fighting to be about 100,000 but a U.N. experts’ panel later said some 45,000 ethnic Tamils may have been killed in the last months of the fighting alone.
Sri Lanka’s president on Saturday outlawed two Islamist groups suspected to be behind recent suicide bombings on churches and hotels, while the wife and child of the suspected ringleader were wounded during a military raid in safe house, his family and police said.
The National Towheed Jamaat (NTJ) and Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim were banned under his emergency powers, President Maithripala Sirisena said in a statement, nearly a week after the Easter Sunday attacks that killed more than 250 people.
Authorities could not act earlier to ban the two little-known groups because the law required them to show firm evidence against them, officials said.
Police believe the suspected mastermind of the bombings, Mohamed Hashim Mohamed Zahran, led either the NTJ or a splinter group. Less is known about Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim, whose members are also believed to have played a role in the bombings. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Soldiers spread out
Nearly 10,000 soldiers have been deployed across the island to carry out searches and boost security since the bombings in three churches and four hotels, most of which were in Colombo. Security forces have detained 100 people, including foreigners from Syria and Egypt, police said.
A gunbattle erupted on Friday evening during a raid on a safe house in Sainthamaruthu in Ampara district on the island’s east coast, killing at least 15 people, including three people with suicide vests and six children, a military spokesmkan said. The wounded included the wife and a daughter of Zahran, his family said.
“Yes, the wife and daughter were injured in the attack,” said Mohamed Hashim Mathaniya, sister of Zahran. “I was asked to come to identify them but I am not sure I can go,” she told Reuters from the town of Kattankudy in the east, where Zahran was originally based.
Zahran’s driver was detained in a separate raid, according to a police statement. Bomb-making materials, dozens of gelignite sticks and thousands of ball bearings were found in a search of a separate house in the same area, along with Islamic State banners and uniforms, the military said.
Zahran appeared in a video released by Islamic State days after the bombing, the only one showing his face while seven others were covered. In the video the men stand under a black Islamic State flag and declare their loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Authorities have said there could be more attacks against religious centers.
Last Sunday’s bombings shattered the relative calm that the Buddhist-majority country has seen since a 26-year civil war with mostly Hindu ethnic Tamil separatists ended a decade ago. Sirisena and the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have faced strong criticism after it emerged that India had repeatedly given warnings of the possibility of attacks.
Both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have said intelligence was not shared with them, exposing rifts at the top of the government and raising questions about its ability to deal with the security crisis. The national police chief had refused to accept Sirisena’s request to step down, two sources told Reuters on Saturday, a further embarrassment for the president.
The U.S. State Department said terrorist groups were continuing to plot attacks and cautioned its citizens against traveling to Sri Lanka. The department also ordered the departure of all school-age family members of U.S. government employees.
India and Britain have also warned their nationals to avoid traveling to Sri Lanka. The security forces’ response has included raids on mosques and homes of people in the town of Negombo, where scores died in the bombing of a church.
Police said on Friday that they were trying to track down 140 people they thought had links to Islamic State. The president said some of the country’s youth had been involved with the group since 2013 and that there were drug-trafficking links.
Warning of retaliation
Muslims were urged to pray at home on Friday after the State Intelligence Services warned of possible car bomb attacks, amid fears of retaliatory violence. Many have fled their homes amid bomb scares, lockdowns and security sweeps.
The archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, told reporters he had seen an internal security document warning of further attacks on churches and said there would be no Catholic Masses celebrated anywhere on the island this Sunday.